by Quentin 'Cubist' Long
part 1
1 2

  2001 was a bad year for people who took their Reality straight, neither shaken nor stirred. The first hammerblow to collective sanity came on 23 January, when all the members of a certain Internet mailing list spontaneously transformed to something else, each person's change seemingly tailored to their specific interests. I was on that list, and what I got from the deal was the power to shapeshift, complete with microscopic symbiotes in every cell that make me functionally immune to fatigue and awfully damn hard to kill. Weird? Yes. But the world kept turning; there were only about 800 of us Changelings (as we became known) in all, and most of us did our best to keep low profiles. I didn't -- instead, I chose to play "lightning rod", actively attracting media attention so that others might live in peace and privacy.
  Cue hammerblow #2 in September. Friday the 13th came on Thursday that month, but the bad luck showed up two days early. While I've never insisted on big celebrations for my birthday, I couldn't help but feel things went way the hell too far in the opposite direction that year...

thursday, 5:45 am
new york city

  I was crawling through the wreckage of the South Tower. I wore a slim, serpentine form, ideal for wriggling through the smallest of gaps, with infrared-sensing pits and sensitive nose to help me zero in on survivors. I'd already found... a number of corpses; given the condition of some, it was a good thing this body was incapable of throwing up.
  At the same time, I was part of the debris-clearing detail, a ton and a half of multi-legged, organic dump truck with quite a few strategically placed limbs to grab and lift and drag. I'd bulked up for this gig on several hundred pounds of food (none of which I had to pay for), and it was working out pretty well. What with the ash and dirt covering everybody, it wasn't always easy to tell the Changelings from the humans.
  Meanwhile, I was on the sidelines, coordinating my actions with a man whose name and title I never quite caught, but he's the guy in charge of relief efforts. I was a 7'6", 220-pound, bipedal cheetah, my vest and fur just as dust-encrusted as any human's exposed skin.
  Did I mention I hadn't slept in 47 hours?

tuesday, 10:24 am (7:24 pdt)
san diego, california

  Not quite eight months since the Event granted me powers and abilities never before seen on this Earth... and there I was, putting them to use in the service of the Ralston-Purina Company. For the occasion, I was wearing a body that looked to be 100% pure Great Dane on the outside. Just another advertisement with a talking canine -- except that this doggie could talk without any special effects, and I also took direction a lot better than any real animal could.
  A commercial. For dog food.
  Working on my birthday wasn't my original plan, but the ad agency waved too bleeding much money in front of my face. Heinlein said a writer should learn to refuse attractive offers, and I was beginning to understand why. Anyway, we'd started filming bright and early; the agency only had me for one day, and they wanted to get as much footage of me as they could while they could.
  Radios weren't allowed on the set while the cameras rolled, of course. Can't have stray noises distracting the cast or crew, right? And then we took the first break of the day...
  It was a ten-minute break. The stage manager's schedule said so.
  Longest damn ten minutes of my life.
  Somebody brought in a monitor, and we watched it happen in living color. The airliner slamming into the tower... the gouts of dense smoke spewing upwards... the tower collapsing... My mind was blank. The situation was unreal; it was more than I could grasp. When my brain finally started working again, the first thought that crossed my mind was that Industrial Light and Magic could have done a better job. That's right: People were dead and dying, and I was critiquing the video for the quality of the special effects.
  It hadn't happened -- couldn't have happened. I was shooting a dog food commercial, for Christ's sake! A dog food commercial! Catastrophe doesn't strike while the cameras are rolling! It wasn't in the script! The director hadn't given the airplanes their cue! We didn't have the budget for that shot!
  But it was real. Peter Jennings kept on saying so...
  I didn't remember going for my cell phone, but it was in my hand. I didn't remember dialing, but I heard a voice on the other end, the voice of a Government agent I'd met in February.
  "Who are you, and how did --"
  "Shut up," I interrupted. "Agent Robinson, this is Quentin Long. I am speaking to you from San Diego, California. I am going to New York. If I turn cheetah, I can get there on foot in about a day and a half, doing 70 all the way. The only reason I'm talking to you is that I want to know if you can get me there faster. I'm gonna wait fifteen minutes, after which I'm off and running. If you've got good news for me before I leave my phone's coverage area, great. Otherwise, look for me in New York about 1 AM Thursday morning. Get cracking on transportation."

tuesday, 10:42 am (7:42 pdt)
san diego, california

  I was talking to a gentleman named Harry Jenkins, my agent and the Keeper of My Schedule. Sort of a right-hand man, you might say. I'd gotten a good, strong whiff of his scent when I interviewed him, so I knew he was both honorable and trustworthy.
  "Hi, Quentin. Have you heard --"
  "Yes, I've heard. Forget the Purina ad, and cancel everything for the duration, because I'm going to New York. Now."
  "Cancel!? Wait a minute -- that's gonna cost us a bundle!"
  "Yes. And your point is?"
  "But -- but -- what do you think you'll be doing there?"
  "Whatever they need me for. Finding survivors, moving rubble, shining shoes, I couldn't care less."
  "So you'll be a major, vital part of the recovery effort? Hmmm... I can use this."
  I could practically hear the wheels turning in Jenkins' head. Despite myself, I almost smiled. "That's why I pay you the big bucks. You take care of the PR; I've got other things on my plate. Speaking of dinner, can you get Purina to ship some up there for me? If I'm gonna haul concrete, I'll probably want to bulk up for it."
  "That so? Alright. I'm on it, Quentin."
  "You're welcome. Give 'em... heaven."
  Understandably, it wasn't quite his usual tagline.

tuesday, 1:24 pm (10:11 am pdt)
san diego, california

  I was doing 70 alongside whichever expressway. My cell phone bleeped; I braked so I could answer without risk of giving myself fourth-degree road rash. It was Jenkins.
  "Figured you might like to hear some good news, Quentin. One: The agency's going to pay you for the work you did before the shit hit the fan. As for the rest of your fee, they've agreed to use that as the first part of their contribution to the relief effort. Two: Ralston-Purina will cater this party. They're starting with a 4,000-pound shipment of food that should arrive by 8 AM tomorrow, and more on request. Three: Don't worry about the broken contracts. The money that would've gone to you is now going to the relief effort in your name, with equal matching funds from the companies in question. Any new developments on your end?"
  All that in less than 90 minutes -- and he was a man of honor, as well. "Yes. Apparently, I won't be the only Changeling in the rescue and recovery crews; my ride's going to stop twice to pick up more of us."
  "Alright. As soon as you find out who, let me know."
  "Can do, but for now, I gotta run. Bye."
  "Good luck."
  I turned off the phone and got back up to speed. It wasn't that long before I arrived at MCAS Miramar, which was actually within the San Diego city limits, as best I could tell. The sentries at the front gate didn't so much as blink as I (wearing the body of an anthropomorphic cheetah) slowed from 70 to a steady walk in front of them.
  "Quentin Long. I'm told I have a ride here."
  "Yes, sir. May I see your identification?"
  I rolled my eyes. "I'm a pedestrian with a built-in fur coat who broke the speed limit getting here. You know anybody else who fits that profile?"
  "No, sir, but I have my orders. May I see some identification?"
  The military mind in action. World War III might be warming up, just waiting for its entrance cue, but by God all forms would be properly filled out in triplicate. What the hell, it was good to know that some things never changed. And honestly, I couldn't blame anyone for being doubtful that I really was who I claimed to be. After all, how do you verify a shapeshifter's true identity?
  I extracted my driver's license from my wallet and handed it over. It was unique in that it had two photos -- my human and cheetah faces -- and two corresponding sets of 'vital statistics', plus a "Bearer must assume one of these two forms on official request" notation. The sentry ran my license through some sort of reader device, asked me a couple of questions, and the mildly annoying ritual was done.

tuesday, 5:13 pm (2:13 mst)
somewhere over arizona, just past the california border

  I was a passenger in a military transport plane whose type I didn't recognize. Assuming the ETA I'd been given was valid, I had another couple of hours to kill before we touched down in Houston for refueling, service, and picking up a pair of Changelings -- and there was another Changeling in South Carolina, to be picked up on the same terms. This degree of activity on my behalf didn't strike me as unusual; I just figured that Agent Robinson had pulled some strings, changed a few details of scheduled activities that would have occured regardless.
  Fortunately, I had a puzzle to occupy my mind. The body I'd just designed, the "seeker" form, had one big problem: Being only five feet long and two-three inches thin, it would be maybe 10 pounds, which gave the rest of my full hundred kilograms of biomass nowhere to go. Simple expansion was out (I'd be too wide to get through the spaces I had to), but perhaps if I only extended one dimension, the length... no, that would stretch it out to well over 100 feet in length, and that struck me as being just too damn cumbersome for the task at hand.
  Maybe it was time for me to try something completely different. The physicist Roger Penrose, in his book The Emperor's New Mind, proposed that consciousness was ultimately a byproduct of quantum interactions between microtubules in the neurons; if he were correct, there were all sorts of fascinating consequences and corollaries. For example, what would happen if two distinct brains just happened to have identical neural architecture? Maybe those quantum interactions wouldn't be able to distinguish between them... I adjusted the seeker's design, then closed my eyes and concentrated.
  My left arm became a seeker, then detached itself from my body and fell to the steel floor. It lay there like a discarded rag, its central nervous system too primitive to provide volition or motive power. Meanwhile, I replaced the arm and grew a small knot of neurons near the base of my brainstem, a clump of cells whose neural architecture was identical to that of the 'brain' in the seeker. And when that knot was complete, the seeker opened its eyes! It worked! The seeker's brain was identical to my newly-formed brain-knot, and quantum-mechanical processes did replicate all nerve impulses from one to the other!
  It was very disorienting at first; it wasn't just double vision, but also double hearing, double smelling, double existence. It took me half an hour to get to the point where I could handle the extra sensory input, and another 10 minutes more until the first time I successfully moved one limb of one body without that action being duplicated by the corresponding limb of the other. By 3:30, I had enough skill to manipulate each body independently. It was rather like writing a sonnet on my belly with one hand while juggling two balls with the other, except more so. But I could do it! My two-body actions were clumsy and halting, yes, but I could do it at all, and competence would come with practice.

tuesday, 10:52 am (7:52 pdt)
san diego, california

  My cell phone rang. Caller ID was useless, which was interesting in and of itself. "Mr. Long," he said before I could speak.
  It was Robinson, with a couple minutes to spare before I got on the road. I could tell there was something in his voice, but not what that something might be, not through the digital phone connection. He continued: "Your ride will embark from MCAS Miramar. Do you know where that is?"
  "No, but you're going to tell me, right?"
  "Correct. Given the time zone you're in, it would be best for you to reach Miramar before, ah, noon." Then he gave me directions. "You'll be leaving no later than 4:45 PM. The aircraft will stop in Texas and South Carolina, for refueling and to pick up more Changelings. You should arrive in New York by 8 AM Eastern time, and make rendezvous in the emergency zone by 9."
  "Got it. Anything else I should know?"
  "Just this: I regret the disharmony of our initial meeting."
  "Don't sweat it. Everybody was clueless back then."
  "True, but nevertheless my behavior was unprofessional, and I wish to apologize for it. Good luck, Mr. Long."
  "Thanks. Have some yourself."
  I hung up, then thanked the director and crew, shifted to my favorite body (the bipedal cheetah), loaded up the pockets of my vest with sugar-rich junk food for fuel, and ran.

wednesday, 1:50 am
fort jackson, south carolina

  We were supposed to pick up Dan Hazelton, but could not, as he'd buggered off half a day before we arrived here. Annoying, but understandable -- God, was it ever understandable! -- and he was only half of the reason we were here anyway. His commanding officer, Drill Sergeant Best, was putting up a pretty good front; anyone with merely human senses wouldn't have known how badly he was torn up inside, nor that his disapproval of Hazelton's action was strictly pro forma.
  "When you see that son of a bitch, you let him know that we don't look kindly on recruits who go AWOL. You tell him that this man's army requires discipline, and that's why he's racking up 2 weeks of sentry duty for every day he's absent." Somehow, I got the impression that the largely nocturnal Hazelton wouldn't much mind sentry duty -- and Best knew it.
  "Yes, sir," I said. "Anything else we can do for you?"
  "Yeah. I hear your C-141's got a little unused cargo capacity, and we got some MREs that're just going to waste. How about you take 'em up north with you?"
  'Some MREs' turned out to be a total of 480 prefabricated meals which (Best assured me) had been mistakenly tagged as 'to be destroyed', and it was easier to make them disappear with us than to fix the paperwork. Right.

tuesday, 9:10 pm (8:10 cdt)
houston, texas

  And there we were at Johnson Space Center. It was going to be about 2 hours from arrival to departure, and if I hadn't known for a fact that I'd reach New York quicker this way than on foot, I would have started running right here. On the plus side, I got a chance to meet two more Changelings: Scott 'BossHoss' Teel and Pakesh De. Teel I recognized from a news photo -- yes, that picture, the one of the horse/human hybrid with tears of joy streaming down his semi-equine face -- but Pakesh De, a humanoid draft horse as tall as my cheetah form with 3-4 times the mass, was unfamiliar to me.
  "Good afternoon, Mr. Teel. When did you start working for NASA?"
  He chuckled at that. "Actually, I don't. But when I got the body of my Albedo character back in January, I got a lot of his skills and knowledge, too."
  That explained his presence in a major NASA facility. As an aficionado of comic books and roleplaying games, I knew that 'Albedo' was a series with a very high-tech setting. If Albedo-derived gadgetry could be duplicated here and now, Teel was sitting on a gold mine; of course, that 'if' was a mighty big one... "So you're trying to jumpstart our technology? Nice thought, but what makes you think the Albedo universe has the same physical laws as this one?"
  "I know," Teel sighed. "That's the first thing every scientist and engineer asks, and I just don't have an answer. What's worse is that even if the physics is kosher, us 21st-Century primitives are going to have a hell of a time implementing 26th-Century tech! Fortunately, algorithms don't care what universe they're in, so my software expertise should make me rich no matter what.
  "Anyway, I really ought to introduce you two. Quentin, I'd like you to meet my herd's alpha mare, Pakesh De."
  "Hello, Pakesh. Are both of you coming along on this little joyride?"
  "Yes," she said, her voice quieter and higher than you'd expect from her size. "I'm as strong as a Clydesdale, so I can help with shifting the broken bits. As well, my saliva can accelerate a person's natural healing, which will be nice... when we find survivors."
  I didn't bother to say 'if we find survivors'; I could see in her eyes that she knew exactly how bad the odds were. Teel said, "As for me, I'm not quite as strong as Pak, but I'm strong enough. Aside from that, we've both got pretty sensitive noses, and I think there's a place for sentient bloodhounds in the rubble."
  I nodded. "Sounds good. Do the rescue workers know about you two yet?"
  "Our hosts have passed the word along, yes," said Pak.
  "What'll you be doing, Quentin?"
  I shrugged. "I'm a shapeshifter. Whatever they need done, I'll bet I can become something that's pretty damned good at it."
  "That should be interesting. By the way, what is that thing on your shoulders?"
  I blinked in surprise. 'That thing' was the seeker form, and I'd draped it around my neck so that I could keep it with me while I practiced moving my cheetah body without also moving the seeker. "It's my other half," I replied. Then I opened the seeker's eyes, and for my next sentence, let it speak every second word: "This little guy is gonna get dirty crawling through piles of wreckage while I'm sightseeing on the surface."
  I smiled as the two equines looked at each other, then back at me. Teel said, "So... just how many places at once can you be?"

thursday, 8:27 pm
new york city

  The next Changeling to show up was a silver dragon straight out of the Dungeons & Dragons game. I got the impression he'd expected a little pomp and ceremony, but if he found it irritating that he was met with "So you're the dragon. Go talk to Quentin," he was keeping his annoyance well-hidden.
  "Good evening, Lord Cubist," he said, his voice a basso rumble with odd-sounding resonance.
  His greeting puzzled me. Where's he getting this 'Lord Cubist' crap from? Oh, never mind. "Mike Brotzman, I presume. Has anyone figured out where you're gonna be deployed yet?"
  "Not to my knowledge, milord. Has the PATH been examined for survivors yet?"
  "The what?"
  "I refer to the commuter rail station over which the World Trade Center was built. Its trains convey people to and from New Jersey under the Hudson River. Inasmuch as the PATH's platforms lie 80 feet below the surface, it is possible that those who were present at the time of the Tower's collapse may yet be alive, but able to neither leave nor communicate with the outside."
  "Oh. I'm not sure; you'll have to ask the guys in charge. I just go where they tell me and do what they say, you know?"
  "No doubt," he agreed in an ambiguous tone. "Given your evident lack of familiarity with the rail system, it would likely be better that I inquire of the overseers myself."
  "I guess --" I began, but I was quickly interrupted by one of the engineers. "Ah! There you are, Mark! This is Mike Brotzman, and yes he is a dragon. Take him to the practice pile and let him demonstrate what he can do, okay?"

wednesday, 7:52 pm
new york city

  The truck from Purina arrived at half past one, and I was shocked to discover that Harry had lied to me: It wasn't a 4,000 pound shipment. Instead, it was 10,000 plus change. The shipment's contents were was just what you'd expect of something that had been assembled in a tearing hurry by someone who'd been given 15 minutes to make it happen -- it was a semi-random collection of edibles, all of them non-perishable items with a good shelf life. There was a massive selection of Purina Fill-In-The-Blank Chows (I guessed they'd heard about the Changelings on site and hoped someone would be able to eat the weirder stuff), case after case of Hostess junk food (not surprising, as Ralston-Purina owned a good chunk of Hostess' parent company), a rainbow of dry breakfast cereals, and so on.
  I called dibs on a couple thousand pounds of the more exotic items -- for example, I figured there probably wouldn't be any call for Bison Chow -- and my cheetah body started munching. You'd be surprised how quickly one person can make a ton of food disappear if he's really working at it; my "truck" form was complete around 4 PM, at which point I split it off from the cheetah body and set it to work hauling rubble.
  Yeah, I knew there were already hundreds of people doing just that. But my God, it looked like they'd barely made a dent in the piles! Do you have any idea how much rubble you end up with when a 110-story tower collapses? I'd made a point of not asking, because I was afraid I'd freeze up if I actually knew the true extent of the problem we were all up against.
  Anyway, I ran the two seekers and the truck. Since three active bodies at once was my practical limit, I just let the cheetah lie down in a secluded corner, inert, in case anyone wanted to talk to me. Unfortunately, this didn't work out as well as I'd hoped; whereas I'd gotten a migraine after 80 seconds of concentrated 4-body action, this three-out-of-four timesharing deal let me keep going for about 20 minutes before the strain grew unendurable. One body had to go; the bipedal cheetah was too valuable as liaison to the men in charge, so rather than waste all the effort and biomass I'd put into the truck, I chose to absorb one of my seekers. There was always more wreckage to haul away, and besides that, the truck would let me act as another communications channel between the command post and the crews out in the field.

friday, 6:07 pm
new york city

  After Hazelton's little rampage, I spent some time checking in with the other Changelings. Spirit Walker was about three-quarters of an inch away from killing something, which meant his mood hadn't changed a bit; Brotzman was as cool and collected as if he was collecting litter from the side of the road; Teel and Pakesh were their own mutual support group. That left the centaur, Chris Duriak, who was just a damn teenager...
  When I got to him, Chris was unharnessing himself for the night. The centaur's human bits looked like he'd aged about 10 years since he did the Boy Scout ads. He hadn't noticed my approach, so I spoke up: "Hello, Mr. Duriak."
  "My dad's not here -- oh! Quentin the Cube! Man, it's so cool that you're here!"
  From dead tired to overenthusiastic teenager in .4 seconds flat. I used to be that young once. I smiled gently. "I'm not sure 'cool' is the right word for it, but thanks anyway. How are you holding up?"
  "I'm okay. I just don't look back at what I'm hauling, 'cuz when I do..."
  I nodded. "I know exactly what you mean."
  "Yeah, I guess you do. I've seen you... wait a minute. You're two places at once, aren't you? How do you do that? Man, that is so sweet!"
  "How I do it is a trade secret, Chris. I could tell you, but then I'd have to keep your head in my safe-deposit box."
  The centaur laughed. "Geez! You are just like your interviews. Hey, when's your next commercial?"
  "Beats the hell out of me. I was working on a dog food ad when this shit went down, and everything's kind of on hold for the duration, you know?"
  "I guess. Man, that sucks! You think they got enough shots to use anyway? What did you look like when you were doing it?"
  "Well, I was basically a Great Dane..."
  The conversation went on like that for a while; Chris' natural ebullience went a long way towards raising my own spirits. "The resilience of youth" is a hoary old cliche, but it wouldn't have gotten to be that way if it weren't so true.

tuesday, 3:30 pm (12:30 pdt)
mcas miramar, california

  Some things never changed, and the classic military "hurry up and wait" syndrome was one of them. Okay, fine, they had their own procedures to follow, and I was too ignorant to do more than throw a spanner into the works if I interfered. But that meant I had nothing to do. I was stuck sitting on my ass waiting for the dispatcher to announce that my flight was ready!
  It was time to take a leaf from Lewis Carroll's book, and I didn't mean Alice in Wonderland. In the preface to a collection of puzzles, Carroll noted that you might not be able to force yourself not to think of X, but you could certainly force yourself to think of Y instead. So rather than go crazy worrying about how long the trip was taking, I started thinking about what I was going to do once I arrived.
  Alright, let's see what kind of body I can design to help locate survivors. They're gonna be buried under God knows how many tons of rubble, so this form needs to be small, a couple inches across, generally serpentine anatomy. Bones are cartilage so there's nothing truly rigid to get in the way. Gotta sense infrared, living flesh will show up like a searchlight in IR, and darkness won't matter...

thursday, 9:44 am
new york city

  Everybody was too busy to sit and chat, but I'd been squeezing in quality time with other Changelings as and when I could. And now it was Daniel "Shadow Wolf" Hazelton's turn. We'd met once before, when he was making an unofficial tour of the the US, and he'd since enlisted in the Army. Right now his lupine form was on top of a massive pile of rubble, making big chunks into smaller, more manageable chunks for other people to haul off.
  "Yo! Dan Hazelton! Someone wants to talk to you!" I shouted up to him. With his hearing, you might think I could get through to him without shouting. You'd be wrong. What with all the heavy machinery running full-tilt, and the clinking clattering rumble of concrete on steel on stone, here and now his ears were no better than any human's. We were all doing a lot of shouting. Fortunately, the lungs of my cheetah-ish body were grossly overdeveloped; I hadn't run into anything I couldn't be heard over.
  He called back, "Dan's not here. He died in January." I didn't like the sound of that, but the laughter of his co-workers suggested it was just a joke. I hoped it was.
  "Then he's a pretty lively corpse," I said as I stepped up behind him and tapped his shoulder. He reacted in a blur; even with the reflexes of the body I wore, he nearly grabbed and threw me!
  Fortunately, he calmed down the instant he saw my face. His toothy grin didn't bother me -- I didn't look any better myself when I did that with fangs -- and he returned to his work, using some sort of wire saw on a particularly solid length of girder. "Took you long enough, Q. When'd'ja get here?
  "Yesterday, about 7 AM." I shrugged. "I've been busy. How's it going?"
  "About as well as can be expected. You?"
  I smiled sadly. "It's been just a whole lot of fun. If I ever get tired of making people laugh, I got material for a hundred new routines that're guaranteed to make 'em throw up."
  He nodded, and finished cutting that girder. "Okay, done. Any place I can grab a bite around here? I've been burning calories as fast as they come in!"
  So he was hungry. He looked it, too. And tired. Word on the site was that Hazelton was making do with 15-minute naps, maybe one every six or eight hours. As for me, I hadn't bothered with sleep at all; the body still wasn't tired, in fact none of my bodies were. What the hell, we could both use a break, and it wasn't like we'd miss anything we wanted to see.
  I gave him a genuinely happy smile. "I know just the place. C'mon."
  We continued chatting, and what he told me was worrisome: Back when "Shadow Wolf" was just a character Hazelton wrote about, he'd envisioned it as a multiple personality. Which meant that when the Event gave him his current form... Ever since 23 January, he'd been 'absorbing' stray personae all along, but there were some serious effects on the core persona every time he did that, and there was one final persona that flatly refused to surrender its independent existence.
  Jesus. What the hell can you do?
  Still and all, Dan Hazelton wasn't dead, Goddamn it! Okay, fine, he'd been through some pretty severe changes, but he was still alive! He wasn't too receptive to my ideas, however. I understood; being who and what I was, I'd been forced to develop a somewhat nonstandard concept of identity. I ended up giving him one of Dr. Hobart's cards. Hobart (my psychiatrist) had done so much for me, I hoped that she could work similar miracles for Hazelton.

wednesday, 10:16 am
new york city

  Using my two seeker-bodies to search within the rubble, so far I'd found a total of five bodies, none of them living. My cheetah-form stayed near the command post; the engineers found my seekers useful to provide clues to the internal structure of rubble-piles. Also, I wanted to be kept up to date on what was happening in all parts of the site; the sooner I knew about any problems that I might be able to help solve, the better. That's how come I knew about Brotzman calling ahead for his arrival Thursday evening (and the preparations that had to be made now to accomodate a 30-foot-long dragon, like making sure he had somewhere to sleep and arranging for local restaurants to send him their overstocked food rather than throw it out). That's also how I knew about the first trucks coming in from Purina around 1 o'clock today.
  My seekers hummed as they slithered between broken girders and shattered concrete -- Sheep May Safely Graze, by my main man, J.S. Bach. I figured that if anyone was alive down there, they'd welcome a pleasant, peaceful tune like that. Unfortunately, the closest I'd come to a live one was a corpse that was a few degrees warmer than ambient temperature.
  Then again, maybe it wasn't so unfortunate after all. Because there was a decision I didn't want to make, a decision I could only put off until I encountered a survivor. I'd known for a while that a simple blood transfusion was enough to grant normal people my special abilities, which included near-absolute immunity to death; trouble was, if I did do that, they wouldn't be human any more -- they'd be a Changeling, just as much as if they'd transformed on 23 January with the rest of us. So either way, their human life would be done.
  A simple transfusion is all it takes; as little as 10 milliliters, a third of an ounce, will suffice.
  There were plenty of reasons for me to not do this, of course. The end does not justify the means; saving a life by erasing a human existence is right up there with "we had to destroy the village in order to save it". And being a 'shifter is not for the weak of mind -- in the first couple of weeks, it was very much an open question whether I would retain my sanity! Wouldn't that be a fine state of affairs for me to impose on someone to whom I intended only good? As well, being a 'shifter is not for the faint of heart. Not only is it a good day on which I recieve as few as ten death threats, but so far, there have been three actual attempts on my life.
  Oh, and let's not forget the Presidential order which forbids me from 'infecting' anybody else with my inhuman traits. It may come as a surprise to those who know me for the card-carrying Libertarian I am, but I actually agree with that particular exercise of Governmental power. You see, I've given a bit of thought to how the existence of nigh-immortal, shapeshifting warriors might affect the conduct of war, hence geopolitical stability... and frankly, that prospect terrifies me.
  As I said, there are plenty of reasons for me to not give a victim a life-saving transfusion. But every time I tried to convince myself this would be the right course of action, I kept coming back to one nasty little question:
  Do I have it in me to just sit there and let someone die?
  I don't know.As God is my witness, I do not know. And I hope I'm not forced to find out, because no matter which way I jump, I'm --
  Up on the surface, an engineer said, "Hey! Are you with me?" He was talking to my cheetah-ish body; when I got lost in thought just then, I must have lost the concentration needed to keep that body active.
  "Sorry. I, ah, thought I found a live one down below, but it was a false alarm. Okay... you want me to send a seeker into the pile at grid-square 37-J, right?"

wednesday, 3:10 am
somewhere over virginia

  Jenkins answered on the second ring. He didn't sound like he'd been asleep, so I didn't worry about it. "Quentin here. How are you doing, Harry?"
  "Fine. Who's coming with?"
  "Remember Dan Hazelton? He'll be there."
  "Shit!" Clearly, Jenkins did remember the wolf-like Changeling. Their one previous encounter had not been pleasant, and could have been tragic if Hazelton hadn't recovered his senses in time.
  "Be nice; he made it through boot camp with highest honors! He couldn't have done that if going feral was still a problem for him, right?"
  "Maybe so, but you be careful anyway. I don't want him gutting you again."
  "Better me than anyone else!"
  "Oh -- well -- there is that. Okay, you've got Hazelton. Who else?"
  "Scott Teel. Also another equine, a mare called Pakesh De. Probably a lurker; I haven't asked who she used to be."
  "No problem, I'll just check BlueNight's database... Two horses and a wolf on an airplane? Jesus Christ. Hazelton damn well better behave himself!"
  "Don't worry; he's not actually with us."
  "Yeah. He left ahead of us, on his own. Officially, he's listed as AWOL, but I think his CO knows and approves of what he's doing."
  After a long moment, Jenkins said, "Fine display of military discipline. Are you sure Hazleton has enough control to not tear people apart?"
  "From what I could tell, more than a quarter of the people on that base would have gone with him if they thought they'd've had half a chance of making it. He won't be a problem, Harry."

part 1
1 2