by Quentin 'Cubist' Long

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  I looped around to 30 yards in front of the group, walking silently after getting beyond their line-of-sight. Their argument was in full swing before I found a spot to eavesdrop from; issues of trust, unnecessary risk, mission objectives, yammer yammer yammer. Chuck asked for one volunteer, but (what a surprise) nobody really wanted to risk exposure to me and whatever had changed me.
  After a minute or so of pointless wrangling, Melford stepped away from the group and broke seal on his own suit. Helmet off, then gloves, and he kept going. That was all I needed; he was working on his suit's lower-body segments when I walked up to him. I moved slow and smooth, ready to bug out at the twitch of a trigger finger.
  I smelled an acrid odor, sharp and bitter, that grew stronger as I got closer to him. I heard his heartbeat, for the love of God! Was it fear I smelled? I crouched to his left, smoothed out a section of dirt between and in front of us both, and wrote:
  It wasn't exactly Johnny Carson material, granted, but it did the job. That unpleasant odor started to dissipate, and Melford actually smiled. "I was assuming that you retained your full human intellect. With that joke as evidence, I'd better rethink my hypothesis."
  I stuck out my tongue at him (being careful not to lacerate anything on my fangs) and blew air between tongue and lower lip -- that is, I gave him the good old raspberry. It was passable.
  His smile faded. "I take it that you're mute?"
  I raised my right hand, curled my thumb and forefinger into a circle and fanned my other fingers.
  "Were you before?"
  Like you don't already know? Wait, no prep time, alright. I shook my head. He nodded.
  "In that case, I think you need this more than I do," he said, handing me a flat object from his belt. In essence, it was a G.I. "magic slate", a sturdy plastic sheet over a flat, smooth slab made from some sort of waxy material. I almost used a claw, but thought better of it and instead pulled the slate's stylus out of its socket. Fortunately, my claws were merely annoying, not a serious obstacle to holding the stylus, even if they did extend an inch beyond my fingertips. I wrote ((TNX 1E6.))
  Melford nodded again, then spoke into his headset: "You may land for pickup. Mr. Long is here and will accompany us back to Ames." Ames Research Center? Coolness, I thought for a moment, until something else occured to me. I wrote on the slate, then got Melford's attention.
  Melford frowned and thought for a moment. "So your senses are that acute." I nodded. "Well... a helmet would dampen sound to some degree, but I'm not sure what we can do about the smell." He smiled, saying, "Maybe you could just not breathe until we land?"
  I rolled my eyes -- and then it hit me: Maybe I could hold my breath that long! It'd make for a conclusive test of the symbiote idea, that was for sure. I blew the air out of my oversensitive nostrils, then stopped breathing. As expected, the ambient odors got drastically weaker; what surprised me is that they didn't go away entirely. Oh, right. Not breathing just means no airflow to carry crap into my nose, it doesn't stop diffusion through still air. Then the chopper landed, and its accompanying sensory shock derailed my train of thought. Covering my ears with my hands helped, some. I faded back anyway.
  "Ah -- there you are, Mr. Long." Melford again. Gosh, I wonder why nobody else wants to talk to me? Wimps. Melford held out a helmet from the chopper; I tried it on experimentally, and after adjusting the straps, it was a halfway decent fit. It also worked as advertised for muffling sounds, thank God. I gave Melford an "okay" hand sign and followed him up to the chopper.
  I didn't need to inhale yet. Score one for the symbiote; the breathing reflex depends on a high level of carbon dioxide in the blood, so if my CO2 gets absorbed by a symbiote first, that reflex doesn't get triggered. QED. It felt weird, at least psychologically speaking. The body was getting along without lung activity just fine; it's the mind that was having a little trouble coping with this new reality. I don't have to breathe. I don't have to breathe. I don't have to breathe. I don't have to breathe. I don't have to breathe.
  "Are you alright?"
  I blinked, looked around. I'd stopped dead at the door to the chopper's cargo bay, which had been fitted with seats for this mission. I took the slate from its place at the waistband of my jeans: ((AS O-K AS CAN B EXPECTED. JUST GETTING USED 2 IT ALL.))
  "Of course." Melford nodded, and motioned me to get on board and strap in. I did, and he followed suit, saying, "You know, it occurs to me that your condition must have some fairly extensive psychological repercussions."
  I smiled -- must have shown some fang, because Chuck flinched visibly. Repercussions? You don't know the half of it... you putz. ((LIKE BURN VICTIMS, AMPUTEES, DISFIGURED'S IN GEN'L? NO SHIT, SHERLOCK!)) I erased the slate to make room for more text: ((SEE ALSO: REWIRED BRAIN, NEW/DIFF. ENDCRN. SYS, NEW INSTINCTS, ETC ETC)) And again: ((NEXT I'LL TRY "PAINFULLY OBVIOUS HYPOTHESES" 4 $300, ALEX!)) Something felt oddly familiar here, which made it a classic deja vu deal, since nothing like this had ever happened to anyone, as far as I knew.
  Totally new experience? Well, sort of. God only knows I've played enough shapeshifting characters of one type or another, and this is right in line with my own private speculations that never got into any RPG sessions. At least I don't have any problems with the new persona taking over...
  I felt it again, that feathery tickle of deja vu along the inside of my skull.
  Or... do I? I reviewed my recent behavior, the more recent the better. The sound of the chopper's engine was a big distraction, especially when we lifted up into the air, but I forced myself to tune out the damn noise. Was I more aggressive than usual, less patient, more arrogant?
  Oh, shit...
  Hold on a sec, none of that's necessarily a warning sign for having your mind decay down to animal-level intellect. Do the math, let's try powers of two. 2 -- no, the first one is 2 to the zeroeth power, that's 1 -- so make it 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024... 2048... 4000 something, 4096... 8000... Come on, you know this sequence! Next after 4096, it's... 8092? Damnit!
  Down at the base of my spine, I felt the first tiny stirrings of fear.
  Oh my God. I am losing it.
  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!
  "Aah rhhuh eee ohhrr awww," I sang; at least the tune was recognizeable as And the Beat Goes On. That was enough to confirm my inability to speak -- but this time I didn't freak out! Beauty. Utterly amazing how much it helps to know I'm not stuck like this forever. I checked myself over; yep, my first alternate body had returned, as far as I could tell. Coolness. So what the hell do I look like, anyway? I'd never seen this face, after all! Fortunately, my home-away-from-home here included a bathroom with a mirror.
  I stood up -- and loose fur rained down off of me in all directions. Oh, hell. Shoulda thought of that. I backed away from the desk with the computer, made sure there was no furniture within 6 feet to catch loose hair, and brushed myself off. I also discovered that a double dose of fur in the pants was very uncomfortable. Fuck it. Might as well go naked, at least until I get back to human. I stripped down to the pelt -- for whatever reason, the nudity taboo just didn't kick in -- and turned my trousers inside-out, then shook 'em quite thoroughly.
  Having just eliminated loose fur from my person, next I did the same for the computer. This wasn't hard, as the bulk of the hairs were just resting on the keyboard. Then, finally, I took that trip to the mirror.
  Lon Chaney, Sr. as the Wolfman looked back at me from the glass. I turned my head to the right and left, getting the best view I could of the sides and back. Yep, just like in the Universal picture. Hey, the ears are mobile! That didn't show up in the movies, did it? I bared my fangs. Nasty, those. Bet I could do some serious damage with 'em. I'd apparently stopped inhaling when I changed this time; no wonder the local odors hadn't overwhelmed me. I took a cautious sniff, and decided to swear off breathing through the nose. Jesu Christe, does this place reek! Disinfectants... detergents... hot plastic and metal... residual odor from shit and urine, bleah. Some odors shouldn't be identified... Something else in the air, smells like electricity, it's making my nose tingle. Not ozone, though. No idea what the heck it is, have to ask Melford when he returns. On an impulse, I looked for a scale, and found one of those triple-arm-balance jobs. I stepped onto it, and adjusted the sliding weights. Okay, that makes me... 229 pounds? Hold it, they weighed me at 2 o'clock, and I was 237 then! How the hell did I lose 8 pounds in six and a half hours? The answer came to me after a moment's thought. When I changed, I shed all my fur. How many square feet is that, 6? 10? Might just be 8 pounds of fur on me. Okay, fine, mystery solved, but I still gotta get back to human!
  But... how?
I frowned, paced the larger room like a wolf pacing his cage. Need focus. Gotta focus on What I Want To Be. But when I did that, it didn't work. Okay, I don't much care for homo sapiens in general, maybe that's why just thinking Human didn't work. Need a little help with the emotional focus, then. How about a song. Turning human -- damn it, I don't have my filk books! Okay, not so literal. Reversion. Return to what I was after a short time away. Vacation's end. Homecoming. Come Along Home, that's it! That's a Kingston Trio number, right? Net, don't fail me now!
  I sat down at the computer and brought Google (my favorite search engine) onto the screen. A few minutes' work revealed Come Along Home to be a Tom Paxton song that had actually been performed by the Chad Mitchell Trio; I also found the lyrics. And, yes, an MP3 of the album cut, praise Napster!
  Fortunately, the machine had an MP3 player installed. The intro set the mood nicely, and then the voices: "Come along, won't you come along home now / Night is fallen and the path is steep..." It was as good a song as I remembered -- too bad just listening to it didn't help me change. Okay, okay, okay. Gotta sing for my body. Back to the howler monkey, and this time keep an eye on the volume control!
  I cleared a space in the middle of the room, then sat down on the floor. Don't want the fur to spread out too far. Mmm, legs don't want to cross. Tail! The monkey's got a tail, I guess I'll lie down on my stomach. For some reason, the prone position felt more comfortable, more natural, than either sitting down or lying on one side. Wonder why that is? Doesn't matter, I won't be here much longer. Okay. The howler monkey cometh. I was worried about speech... I closed my eyes, cleared my mind as best I could, and tried to duplicate the state of mind I'd been in when I went ape.
  It worked. I felt my bones and flesh shifting, fur shedding and regrowing, all of that good stuff, and I was a howler again within less than a minute. For some reason, my senses were a lot more acute now than they'd been my first time as a howler monkey. That electric aroma, the smell of excitement, tingled through my lungs and across my skin. "Two for two!" I said (remembering to keep it quiet) as I brushed off loose hair. "He shoots, he scores, and by God it is deterministic! Hallelujah!"
  My tail whipped from side to side like it had its own separate brain, the momentum of its motion pulling at its root in a very uncomfortable manner. I twisted around to look at the thing. "What's gotten into you, then?" It simply would not stop moving! I frowned and grabbed at the base of the thing, intending to pull it towards the front to force it to be still, but it wrapped five loops tightly around my wrist and arm. And it wouldn't let go! I couldn't make it let go!
  Pissed off, I growled, "Rrrrrrrr," and -- Wait a second, that's your spine you were just about to manhandle! Chill out, Quentin. It's not moving now, and that's what you wanted, right? It's not like you need both hands to sing, right? Persuaded by the force of my superior logic, I cued up Come Along Home again. And this time... I sang along. Okay, it opens with the chorus...
  "Come along, won't you come along home now
  "Night is fallen and the path is steep
  "Come along, won't you come along home now
  "Water's runnin' and the river is deep."
  That's good. Now the first verse. I began improvising a harmony line in the bass clef.
  "Last night I heard a sweet voice callin'
  "Come along, won't you come along home
  "Wind on the river and the calves are bawlin'
  "Come along, won't you come along home"
  I wasn't paying attention to anything but the song, the homeward bound feeling woven into the lyrics. Even so, I did notice when my body started to shift during the second chorus.
  "Wind goes 'whssshhh' and the trees are sighin'" Okay, the fur's falling out...
  "Come along, won't you come along home
  "Somebody's born and somebody's dyin'
  "Come along, won't you come along home" Hold it, what the heck?
  My bones had been adjusting themselves all through the second verse and third chorus -- and they weren't going for human. And my hair was re-growing thicker than human, it had to be fur again!
  "Every night the voice guh- hets bold, -er" I've still got a tail!
  "Come along, won't you... come along..." Shit, that's a muzzle forming, what the hell is going on here?
  I gave up in the middle of the third verse, and looked down at myself with no small amount of worry and fear. It didn't help that my senses of smell and hearing were getting exponentially more acute by the second. Spotted fur down the sides, white on the chest, legs going digitigrade. Oh shit. I rushed over to the bathroom before the shift was complete, collecting bruises when I tripped on nothing, made clumsy by my changing anatomy. And once in the bathroom...
  I stared into the mirror.
  I stared into the furry face in the mirror.
  I stared into the yellow eyes of the furry face in the mirror.
  I stared into the yellow, slit-pupilled eyes of the furry face in the mirror.
  I stared into the yellow, slit-pupilled, thoroughly feline eyes of my furry face in the mirror.
  I was a bipedal cheetah. Just like a character of mine I'd used before, recycling him under such names as Karl Velos or Rufus Lynx or Jubatus.
  "Oh, fucking shit."
  I could feel another panic attack building; I backed carefully away from the mirror and lowered myself into the chair at the desk, moving as cautiously as if I were made of DDT-weakened eggshell. It was a good thing I took it slow, otherwise I might have sat on my tail as it lashed like a psychotic rattlesnake. I closed my eyes and took long, slow, shuddering breaths, clutching the arms of the chair in a deathgrip that did little to stop me shaking like an electric buzzer. I clenched my teeth tightly, so that I wouldn't shred my tongue and the inside of my mouth. Whatever trains of thought I'd had running, all of them were expertly derailed -- I couldn't formulate a coherent concept to save my life.
  Come on. Deep breaths. Okay. Pound-a-pound-a-pound-a. Deep breaths. Om mani padme hum. Deep breaths, that's it. Think good thoughts about a pussycat. All is calm. Alles ist kalm. Deep breaths. Tout est passive. Mouth, not nose. Okay. Johnson & Johnson's "No More Jitters" Shampoo. Ni-ice, de-ee-ep breaths. Oh-kay. Oh yeah. Let's get that pulse --
  "Rryowwrrrr!!" noise at door and blur and clattery noise and too damn fast and the cot tipped onto one side and I wasn't seated in the chair any more. I froze, even my tail, too terrified to even think of doing anything else but curl into a fetal position and hide behind the overturned cot. They're coming for you finally coming with live ammo don't move don't shake don't breathe they might hear you.
  A bit later (could have been anywhere from a second to an hour; my time-sense was shot) a voice said, "Well, something's in there." Who is that don't know can't make noise don't trust can't let him find you must hide can't talk.
  Next morning someone replied, "Let me go in first. If he's having another episode, he'll probably react better to a familiar face." Smart one that one's Melford took off suit but you broke him broke his ears he's deaf he hates you who is he what real agenda can't trust can't be found be still be still be still like corpse.
  A week passed before the first voice said, "Are you crazy? Didn't you look at that strap? Didn't you see what those claws of his did to ballistic nylon? What do you think they'll do to unprotected flesh!?" That one hates you more he's right though right right right title bout claws can't move can't kill don't want to hurt keep silent no noise can't let them find you no talking.
  Melford spoke before the other guy's voice died away: "If you refer to the claws he shed when he became a howler monkey, I rather doubt they'll do anything. Any other objections before I go in?" Got claws now claws now he hates he doesn't know be still can't talk don't move don't breathe hide hide hide.
  "Good. Just so you know, Quentin, I'm going to come in now." And he stepped into the room. Broke him I broke him I'm broken no noise no sound no kill go 'way no no no no no.
  I gave up trying to keep track of time, it just wasn't working for me. Melford's footfalls were on the low side of deafening, and I could smell each and every different ingredient in the meal he'd eaten. I couldn't see, my eyes were tightly shut. I heard, I heard, Melford kneeling by the computer. "Loose hairs. Short and in great quantity. You've changed again, haven't you, Quentin?" he asked. No reply don't answer can't talk be mute choose mute he kill not me he kill broken can't move.
  I heard scraping and rustling. "It looks like it could be two distinct types of fur, and the total quantity seems greater than any single human-sized creature could produce. How many times did you change, Quentin? Once? Twice? More?" Three is a magic number no kill I one minus three is oblivion shaddup no moving no speaking.
  Melford walked away, and the fresh echoes said he was in the bathroom. "He's not in here. Are you, Quentin?" Not here not there not anywhere don't move can't make noise why him broke I'm broken maybe not hate must hate broke ears.
  He returned to the main room. "I wonder where he could be? Certainly not hiding under the cot, Quentin's too smart to try concealing himself behind something that small." Oh god oh shit did I err no kill can't trust play dead he'll go 'way. Both ears and nose told me he was getting closer to me. There was some noise from outside the room, but I couldn't tell what was going on.
  "But he's had a day like no human being has ever had. Maybe he's not thinking straight at the moment. Maybe he needs a little time to cope; maybe he could use a little help learning how to deal with it all." Too close he's deaf not blind oh god he's here he sees don't move don't breathe don't move don't talk don't move maybe he'll go 'way.
  It was bizarre, how much I could tell about Melford's position and actions without using my eyes. I knew he was standing right there next to me, and I could tell when he knelt down, and I especially knew when he started to gently rub the fur on my head. He's petting me god that feels good but why but why he hates me does he hate me don't move can't trust don't talk oh god go 'way go 'way go 'way!
  "What do you say, Quentin? Will you let me try to help you?" And then he scratched behind my ear... and, I don't know what happened, it felt like my mind split off in two parallel tracks!

  Establishing shot: Metal, metal everywhere, and soft focus makes everything look *slightly* blurred. "Starburst" effect filter on camera to emphasize the highlights glinting off of all the polished machines and tools and cabinets and racks and God knows what else. Camera pans smoothly to the right, then up & right; it stops when we see QUENTIN. We're looking down at him from 20 feet over his head. He's standing there in cheetah-form, turning his head this way and that. When he looks up into the camera, he *and he alone* snaps into hyper-sharp focus -- everything *around* Q. is still a touch blurry -- and then the camera quick-zooms in, moving as it goes, to end up looking at him from eye-level. He's tilted at a 50 degree angle; the camera quick-turns to put him upright.
  QUENTIN looks around. His lips move, but no sound is heard. We see (and Q. does not) a sort of browser window appear in midair over his head. The window contains large, readable text.
  Window text: What the -- oh, right. I'm... huh?
  "How are you doing, Quentin? Can you hear me? How do you feel?"
  The voice of Douglas "HAL 9000" Rain came from my throat: "I'm sorry, Dr. Melford, but Mr. Long is feeling indisposed at present, and cannot speak to you. Perhaps I could assist you in some way?"
  After a short pause, Melford said, "Ahh.. If Quentin isn't available, to whom am I speaking?"
  "I am Quentin's other half. You may call me HAL if you like."
  Another pause. "Thank you... HAL. Can you tell me how Quentin is feeling?"
  "His body is in excellent condition; in purely physical terms, he has never felt better."
  "And how is he in psychological terms?"
  "His mind is currently recovering from the trauma associated with having experienced a total of five complete bodily transformations, the last three of which occured within the past 15 minutes, in a 10-hour period."
  Q. puts one hand at his throat. His lips move silently. New text appears in the window.
  Win. text: Testing. Testing. I'm feeling vibration in my throat, but can't hear a damn thing. Gotta be dreaming...
  Q. turns around, looks up, sees the window, grabs it and pulls it down for a closer look. He looks hard at his furry hands for a moment. His lips move, more text appears.
  Win. text: So not only am I still a cheetah, but I've got my own little word balloon. [sigh]
  Q. shuts eyes, concentrates, morphs to the state he was in, clothes and all, before his 11 AM transformation. He experimentally opens and closes his hands, looks at his newly-returned human self.
  Win. text: THAT'S better. What the hell is this place? Looks like an R. Daneel Olivaw wet dream...
  Melford's colleague, the concern in his voice clear even through the isolation suit he wore, said, "Charlie. He's lost it. For God's sake, please get out of there. Now. Before he starts ripping apart anything in arm's reach."
  Melford sighed. "Jim, I appreciate your concern, but that's not going to happen."
  'HAL 9000' replied: "I concur. James, perhaps I could allay your concerns by reminding you of an incident in the life of Mel Blanc, when he was in hospital for surgery. His attending physicians discovered that even while unconscious, Mr. Blanc could converse with them in the voices of the many cartoon characters he had performed for Warner Brothers."
  "You see, Jim?" Melford asked, his satisfaction clear. "Quentin's not insane, he's just talking in his sleep."
  Q. starts walking; the text window follows. Camera tracks him, but before his second step, we see a large, lit-up flatscreen appear behind him. (SFX note: the flatscreen's abrupt appearance should be unreal, dreamlike)
  The image on the screen pops into hyper-sharp focus when the camera zooms in on it. We see "Long-Watterson" in clean, corporate-style, grey lettering along the bottom right edge of the screen, which is otherwise dominated by a fanciful, ornate logo: TRANSMOGRIFFIC!
  Cut to: Shot of Q.'s face. He shakes his head & smiles, gets no response when he touches the screen with a fingertip.
  W. text: Alright, it's not a touchscreen, so what kind of input DOES it use?
  Cut to: View of screen. A "twirling star" lighting effect sparkles an inch or two off of the screen's upper right corner; when it fades, we see a RJ-45 jack (i.e. standard ethernet) in hyper-sharp focus.
  "Thank you, Dr. Melford," 'HAL' said. "May I suggest that it would be prudent to make a video recording of Mr. Long's present condition? In the likely event that clandestine governmental operatives attempt to remand him into their care, such a recording could be highly useful in persuading them that Mr. Long would be unsuitable for their needs."
  No words were spoken for a while. Melford continued to pet and scratch my head, then said, "I take it that Quentin has given some thought to the larger consequences of his change?"
  "That is correct, Dr. Melford. He has also given some thought to the nature and causes of the change itself. Mr. Long believes his change hews closely to a fictive construct of his own devising; if he is correct, the details of this fictive construct might prove helpful in guiding your investigations."
  Q. has a quirked smile on his face.
  W. text: And here I am without an Ethernet cable...
  Cut to: Q.'s face. He's got a thoughtful expression, and he raises his right hand up for a closer look. He concentrates, and his index finger morphs into a generic ethernet cable & jack. Camera quick-turns so we can see this new cable extend itself to plug into the jack; that's the cue for a Mac-style menubar to appear along the top of the screen.
  Cut to: Text window.
  W. text: Alright, we're in business! Show me what you got, baby!
  Cut to: Screen. Various menus -- EDIT, FORM, etc -- drop down from the menubar at random. The final menu, HELP, stays up, and the camera quick-zooms in on it as "Help TRANSMOGRIFFIC" is selected.
  "So it might be a good idea to ask Quentin about this, ah, 'fictive construct'."
  "Wait a minute, Charlie. Don't tell me you're actually going to do that!"
  "Why not? He came up with the symbiote idea before I did."
  "You mean the symbiote idea we wasted 14 man-hours chasing down before deciding it just wasn't there?"
  "Excuse me," 'HAL' said, "but it may be relevant that Mr. Long's fictive construct specified mitochondria as the symbiote. Were your investigations predicated upon the assumption that the symbiote was an extra-cellular entity?"
  "As a matter of fact, they were," Melford replied, a trifle amused.
  The TRANSMOGRIFFIC help window appears on the screen. Q. starts clicking and reading, and we see a montage of various topics he's looking over, with occasional head shots interspersed. The head shots show Q.'s emotions, from puzzlement to fascination to distaste to happiness and then some, as he continues reading. As for the screen shots, only the headings are clear enough for us to see. We see dozens of headings, a few of which are:
  "Symbiotic mitochondria?" Jim asked, confused. "But..."
  'HAL' said, "Mr. Long has a quote that he feels is appropriate in this context." Then Leonard Nimoy's voice was heard: "It must be possible, Captain. It happened."
  Melford actually chuckled. "Interesting sense of humor Quentin has, wouldn't you agree? Very well, let's see if we can... hmm." He'd put his hands under my armpits to lift my body, but something happened and he lost his grip.
  A second attempt failed as well; it felt like my body flexed in an odd way, and his empty hands flew up in the air.
  "Whoa! It would appear that he doesn't want to move. Jim, I believe your gear includes a digital camera?"
  Jim was still worried, but he obeyed the implicit command. "Right." I heard something being removed from a belt holster, then a couple of click-y sounds. "One video of an oversized, catatonic cheetah, coming right up."
  QUENTIN moves the help window to another screen (whose abrupt appearance was as dreamlike and unreal as the first screen's) and starts investigating the TRANSMOGRIFFIC menus on the first screen. Q. brings up various windows and selects various commands, often consulting the help window for clarification. Q. continues doing this thing as he and the screen lose their hyper-sharp focus. Camera *slowly* zooms out. As it does, Q. & screen become as "fuzzy" as everything else, then *everything* "fuzzes out" to an indistinct blur that fades to black...
  Melford provided commentary for the camera. "The subject was found in this condition at approximately 8:35 PM, Tuesday, January 23." He carefully shoehorned one arm under me, managed to turn me over like a hundred-kilogram manhole cover. "As can be... seen here... the subject is essentially unresponsive to external stimuli. The subject is known to have been an oversized howler monkey as late as 7:40 PM; the reason for his current phenotype..." He went on in this vein for some time, finally saying, "Alright, that should do it, Jim. Let's leave him alone, let him rest for a while."

  I heard Jim put his camera back at his belt and leave the room. Melford stayed, petting me. He slipped a pillow under my head and put a blanket over me, then he did something at the computer, and I guess I really did fall asleep somewhere in there.
  Time passed...
  I dreamed. Didn't I?
  I must have dreamed. Of course you did. That's what people do when they sleep.
  I couldn't remember dreaming. You never do anyway. This is a problem?
  I think I feared for my sanity... Garbage collection isn't pretty. You'll be fine.
  And then I opened my eyes. Where am I... right. NASA/Ames Research Center, Building 15A, Room 407. I sat up, raised my head to look around. The room was just like I remembered from yesterday, but something wasn't right. Still a cheetah-morph. I guess I didn't change in my sleep... or maybe I did and I got better?
  Something felt different... Colors. I'm not seeing any, just shades of gray. Damn -- does the retina use rods for color and cones for brightness, or is it the other way 'round? I can never keep that straight. Either way... Gaah! It's 3:52 in the bloody morning! Since when are cheetahs nocturnal?
  I clearly wasn't going to fall asleep again, so I decided I'd get in a little time on the Net. I got up -- and was quite surprised that everything around me was smaller than I remembered. Holy shit, I must be like 8 feet tall! But I'm built so thin now, I'd prolly weigh about 50 kilos if I'd kept the same height. Betcha I do conserve mass when I change. Okay, table that, I wanna catch up on my email. Hmm. I wonder how fast I can read, now that I'm a cheetahmorph?
  Nobody had turned the computer off; the screensaver went away when I tapped the space bar with a thumb. I poised my hands over the keyboard, and... Oh, great. Those claws are gonna rip hell out of the keyboard, aren't they? A few experimental taps proved not only that my clawtips would gouge divots into the keys, but also that I couldn't type with my pads because the claws themselves were too thick to fit between the keys. And that leaves... hmmm. I wonder if that'll work? I curled my fingers back towards the palm. Whereas a normal typist pulls his fingertips down and towards the palm to press on the keys, I was now going to push my fingertips away from the palm, and let the broad side of the claws make contact. It felt awkward at first but I quickly got used to it, and there wasn't any damage, thanks to the claws being more or less parallel to the surface of the keys.
  I heard some noise; it was Melford, sleeping on his own cot. Ahhh, he doesn't like the light of the screen. Okay, I can fix that. I turned the brightness way down, and I also swiveled the monitor so the screen didn't stare directly at him any more. That was harder than I'd expected -- it looked like this form just didn't have as much physical strength as I was accustomed to. That was weird; it did feel like I was exerting a lot more force than usual, but I'm no more tired now than I was before the exertion. Still not hungry, either. I don't get it; here I've gone more than 30 straight hours without eating, and I bloody well should be hungry, damn it! What the hell is this crap? And how come I still don't need to do that, either?
  I frowned, growled quietly. Never mind, they're already on the list of Things To Investigate. Anyway... hmm. I don't think this is how I left the machine. Stupid PC, can't even keep the damn windows straight when it sleeps. E-mail, that's the ticket.
  I brought that one TSA digest back to the foreground. Used to be good for 850 words per minute, let's see what I got now. 3:54 AM in 15 seconds... 10... Is it my imagination, or is the clock running slow? 5... Go! The digest was 987 kilobytes, mostly "I'm not myself today", and I finished it in... 13 minutes 41 seconds? Say what? That's -- a bit of tapping at the machine's Calculator -- something like 12,000 words per minute! Jeez, that's Evelyn Wood territory! No wonder I got pissed off about the scrolling... I checked the control panels, discovered there was indeed a way to control the speed of scrolling, and maxed out that setting. I brought Netscape back up, got to my e-mail, started downloading another TSA digest, and surfed to CNN.com to kill time while I was waiting for the digest.
  CNN's webmasters had worked fast -- they'd actually set up a separate page in their site for us, with a prominent link to it on the main page. BlueNight's interview was there with a few extra pictures of his reptilian form; there were also photos of other changelings, artists' conceptions of still others, and quite a few written reports sans graphics. Werewolf... dragon... wolf again -- Wait a second, that one's datelined Cupertino? Holy shit, I think it's me! "iWerewolf", what a crock. If they're gonna copy Apple's naming scheme, they should just copy it! Should be one syllable plus the prefix, "iWolf" or whatever -- tiger... another wolf, this one in a VW Bug... a true, non-anthropomorphic, horse -- Honkin' big stallion of a colt, that's gotta be Posti. And it says here, he is losing his mind. Oh, fucking shit. Unless the reporter got it wrong? God, I hope so -- some kind of mutant cetacean, who the hell was that... yet another damn wolf... an honest-to-H. R. Giger xenomorph queen, for the love of God?
  I'd always known we were quite the unusual bunch, but it still felt awfully strange, looking over all the graphic evidence of exactly how bizarre we truly were. Hmmm... looks like I'm the only shapeshifter in the lot. I grimaced. Wonderful. Even among a bunch of freaks like us, I still find a way to be the odd man out. Sigh. Ah, the digest is here -- 994K. Jeez.
  I opened up the second digest. This time it scrolled faster, but still wasn't as quick about it as I'd've liked, and I was done with it in... 8 minutes 11 seconds? More Calculator-tapping. That's about 21,000 words per minute! And I know I could do faster. God's teeth. Hmmm, maybe it'll scroll faster if I raise the memory allocation -- wait, this is a PC, Windows won't let me do that, it handles memory the way it pleases. Oh, well...
  My in-box held 19 unread digests; I started 'em all downloading, and spent the next few hours surfing the Net and catching up on the List at better than 20,000 words per minute. I found time to reply to some of the vast pile of messages; whereas my typing speed had previously been 55 words per minute, I lost keystrokes from flooding the damn keyboard buffer at any pace much above 400 wpm. God's bloody teeth and gums, those figures are well within Jubatus' capabilities. When I realized that, I could feel ice curling around my spine. I knew better than anyone how thoroughly fucked-up Jubatus was, and if this form came with some of the nastier things I'd inflicted on the poor bastard... No, I can't be Jube, I've got a real voice! Don't borrow trouble, Quentin.
I'm afraid it didn't take long for me to start skipping over all the "I'm not myself" messages. Yeah, yeah, you're an aardvark -- take a number and get in line! That's why I actually had to scroll back to re-read this particular message:

FROM: CCQDobhran
SUBJ: Can you help?

  {Forgive me but I've hacked into Cu's e-mail, (If you must know he had his password on a piece of paper.)} I'm a local friend of his. He's become quite sullen and violent, and we need to know what do with him. He's one of the hundreds on the TSA List who have changed as I'm sure you've seen on the news. He's brooding in his apartment right now, save for when we try to visit him. Then he becomes extremely feral and viscious.
  Any advice? Please respond ASAP!
  ~Mike K.

  Frankly, I doubt I'd have even noticed this one if it hadn't been from CCQDobhran. A couple months back, CCQ had posted a message asking for help dealing with a seriously weird experience; while I (thoroughgoing materialist that I am) thought the mystical hoo-hah he'd described was bullshit, it was clear to me that if he was halfway accurate in describing the psychological aftereffects, he was hurting bad. And since he thought all that mystical hoo-hah wasn't bullshit, the best thing I could do is get him advice from acquaintances of mine who took mysticism as seriously as he did. I guess the advice helped, because he never posted a followup -- "no news is good news", right? -- but even so, I've been paying a little more attention to CCQ's messages ever since. Jesus H. Christ on a sidecar... I definitely wanted to reply to this one privately, off the List.

  TO: CCQDobhran
SUBJ: re: Can you help?

  To whom it may concern:
  Sounds like Dobhran is well and truly messed up. Could it be another lingering aftereffect of what happened at the bridge? If so, maybe Jenny Trout or Sandy Klemperer might have some good advice. He's already got their e-mail addresses, so there's not a lot of point in repeating that info here.
  If it's not the bridge, but instead something related to his new body, I really don't know what to do -- "we're ALL bozoes on this List", to paraphrase the Firesign Theatre. I'm going to be tied up where I am for the next several days (no prizes for guessing why), but once the nice men in lab coats are done with me, I might be able to come out for a visit. You think it would do any good if Dobhran met & had to deal with a (seemingly) non-sentient version of whatever he is now? See, I'm a shapeshifter, believe it or don't, and I can prolly make that happen. The "seemingly nonsentient version" bit, at least; hell if *I* know whether the "do any good" bit would follow. Just a thought.
  Hope this helps...

  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.

  "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."
  "Not even..."
  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.
  "But --"
  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.


  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...


  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."
  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."
  "Go ahead."
  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... like...
  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...

[more to come]