by Quentin 'Cubist' Long
part 2

thursday, 2:12 pm
new york city

  The head honcho said Mike Brotzman was on his way, ETA 9 PM tonight. Good. We could use a dragon; 110 floors of skyscraper made for one hell of a lot of rubble. And his cryogenic breath weapon would be useful to quench fires, presuming it didn't rain before he showed.
  That damn fool Lobo. His face kept on popping up in my mind --
  Enough, damnit! There's people who aren't dead, think about them for a change.
  What the hell. My cheetah body told the head honchoes that I was taking a break, and I walked that form over to where a Changeling named Spirit Walker was. Of course, my seeker and truck bodies just kept on with their tasks.
  Spirit Walker had been a lurker on the List; the Event made him a bipedal puma, complete with that animal's fierce independence and instinct for not being seen. From what I'd overheard, they'd had him locating bodies at first, then transferred him to rubble clearance as soon as they noticed how bloody strong he was. When I caught up to him, he was single-handedly dragging a tarpaulin laden with what had to be at least one metric ton of concrete and metal -- and he wasn't even breathing hard. Hmmm... the truck's not full; I think I'll bring it around here.
  Spirit Walker was not a happy camper. The set of his ears and tail suggested he was in a killing mood, and his first words confirmed it: "You must be Quentin Long. Why aren't you doing anything useful?" His tone was as unfriendly as his words.
  Okay, forget the small talk. "I am. I'm checking to see if you need anything."
  "All I need is Osama bin Laden. Put me anywhere within 2,000 yards of that fucker, and I'll do the rest. For an encore, maybe I can take out the Taliban."
  His cold, inhuman rage was intensely frightening, even though I knew that he was focusing it on the most likely suspects. I swallowed, and tried to ignore the icewater trickling down the cheetah-body's spine. "I'll... keep that in mind. You may want to chat with Dan Hazelton; he just got out of boot camp."
  "Hazelton? You mean Shadow Wolf. We've already talked, and what's happening now is more important. But I know what I'll be doing next, after we've recovered all the dead."
  I refused to think about what he meant. "That's, ah, that's great. In the meantime, is there anything you need now? Is the food okay, would you like someplace better to sleep, is there anything you'd like to talk about?"
  He gave me a sardonic smile. "Everything's fine, Mother. Go help someone who needs or wants it."
  I didn't know how to respond; fortunately I didn't have to, as that's when the truck body arrived. "Well. I'll just be running along, then. You can load up the truck here, and get back to work that much quicker. Seeya!"

friday, 3:24 pm
new york city

  I'd just finished talking to some short guy with an Italian surname, apparently some kind of VIP. No problem; what with my concentrated media exposure, by this time I could pretty well schmooze in my sleep. Not that I needed to sleep -- the wakefulness counter stood at 80 hours plus change, and I still wasn't tired.
  Anyway, I was walking the cheetah body back over to the 'war zone', when someone came up to me.
  "Mr. Long? We have a situation." Hearing those quiet words, I knew it couldn't be good. And since I was the one being told, it had to involve a Changeling. "It's, uh, Shadow Wolf. He seems to have lost it."
  Oh my God. This was one of the things I'd feared, and not without reason. Yes, we Changelings had enhanced physical abilities which let us do more good than humans; but by the same token, we could do a hell of a lot more damage if we went postal. "What's the body count?"
  "Oh, uh, nothing like that. Frank's unconscious with a concussion, and Jerry's got a broken arm and cracked ribs. We're all staying well away from him, and so far he hasn't moved -- he just growls when someone gets within 50 feet of him."
  "Thank God for small favors," I muttered. Okay. He's gone feral. Not going after people, prolly thinks he's defending his territory. How the hell did they deal with this kind of thing in boot camp? Hold it. That Best guy said something... "Has anyone looked through his stuff?" I asked. "He had some kind of backpack, brought it with him from Fort Jackson. Anyone check that yet?"
  No one had, so I spent a few minutes tracking it down by scent. When I found the pack, my hopes were justified; among other things, it contained a high-powered CO2 pistol with a full rack of tranquilizer darts. Thank you for thinking of everything, Drill Sergeant Best. Now all I have to do is figure out how to make sure he stands still long enough that I've got a real shot at him. Unfortunately, sane or not, Hazelton was simply too damn fast. My cheetah form was faster, but not by much, and I had a nasty suspicion that his military training would more than make up for that lack.
  After a short period of intense thought, I decided to hand the pistol over to the best sharpshooter available. While he took aim, I'd go in to distract Hazelton until the sniper got his shot off. This plan worked flawlessly, with no significant collateral damage: I managed to get Hazelton in a full nelson, and two tranquilizer darts sprouted from his chest by the time he finished ripping my arms out of their sockets.
  Like I said: No significant collateral damage.

tuesday, 10:38 pm (9:38 cdt)
somewhere over texas

  Teel and his mare didn't get much conversation out of me; I was preoccupied with other matters. Splitting off more seekers during the ride, I found out how many places at once I could be. Two bodies, just me and one seeker, wasn't that difficult; three bodies was a much harder proposition, but still doable; and with four, the cheetah plus three seekers, the strain gave me a blinding migraine after eighty seconds of coordinated four-way activity. Five bodies was barely tolerable, and even that much only when they were all moving in lockstep like a chorus line, and I just couldn't handle six at once at all. However, I found I could 'time-share', move any three of the six bodies simultaneously, and reassign which three were active at any time; the 'inert' bodies were just a minor annoyance when I did that.
  Okay, five seekers was three too many. When I absorbed the unwanted trio back into my body, I noticed Teel and Pakesh staring at me.
  "What's the matter?"
  "You, um, looked kind of like the Blob or the Thing From Another World. When you did that. Just now."
  It actually took me a moment to figure out what he was talking about. "Oh! You're right, that is pretty weird, isn't it? I'm sorry. That was just an experiment to see what I can do to justify my presence at... the site. Next time I have to do this kind of thing, I'll make sure I'm in private."
  I spent the rest of the time designing another body. For hauling rubble away... Something like a dump truck, I think. Nice, flat surface; maybe a layer of chitin on top of honeycombed bone for strength and support. Seven foot square, seven by ten, something like that. Three or four legs on each side, and lots of arms to haul the stuff up onto the platform. Hmm. If I'm going to be reaching out over the edge, I'll want the legs to be able to splay out for stability. This thing's going to weigh a hell of a lot...

friday, 5:38 am
new york city

  So far I hadn't slept. At all. I kept telling myself I'd sleep when I got tired, but that just hadn't happened yet. It didn't matter, for the only threat to my alertness was the numbing monotony of the work; when you've hauled off one load of rubble, you've hauled off them all. Fortunately, my seeker's task had plenty of variety, not to mention life-or-death stakes to make things a bit more interesting. Nobody knew how stable the piles of rubble were below the surface, or where the bodies might be found, or which of those bodies were still...
  My seeker smelled pus. Fresh pus -- and fresh pus meant infection -- and infection meant a living (if unwell) body!
  The senses I'd given the seeker proved their worth. It was only a minute or so before I knew exactly where this survivor was, and three minutes more for my seeker to reach him in the symbiote-enhanced flesh. The bulk of him was taking up most of a small cavity underneath the remains of some kind of furniture... right. It was a desk that had to be more solid than its current appearance would indicate, what with God knows how many tons of dead weight crushing down on it.
  I was so happy to have discovered a living person that it took me a moment to recognize just how bad his condition was. He had a big, recent scab on his forehead; both legs were crushed between two very heavy slabs, which apparently had squeezed the vessels shut long enough for clotting to prevent major blood loss; and looking at him in the infrared range, I could tell that his forehead had to be well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit while his extremities were down around 70 or 80 degrees. His pulse was steady, maybe 80 beats a minute, and awfully light. There was a lot of blood spattered and pooled and congealed...
  I'm ashamed to say that I wasted a good half a minute on trying to figure out how my seeker could save this poor bastard's life. Then I remembered the obvious, and my cheetah-ish body burst in on the command post: "I found a live one! A survivor! He's in grid-square 17-X, about 60 feet below the surface."
  Unfortunately, nobody else shared my enthusiasm. One paramedic -- Gary something, his last name sounded vaguely French to me -- immediately started pointing out practical problems that would get in the way. Okay, fine, but what he was telling me wasn't what I wanted to hear. "Damn it, Gary, just letting him die is not fucking acceptible!"
  He just looked at me, then quietly said, "You've never conducted triage, have you."
  "No, but I know what it is. And I refuse to accept that that man is beyond help, Goddamn it!"
  He sighed. "You said it yourself: There's 60 feet of rubble between him and any medical assistance, Quentin. Given the symptoms you've described, the most optimistic prognosis has him dead within 6 hours. If we diverted all manpower to 17-X, we still couldn't get to him before he died of his wounds."
  "Bullshit you can't get to him! I'm there."
  "That may be true, but you haven't any medicine or tools with --"
  Gary's words sparked a wonderful idea. "Bets on that?" I interrupted with a grin. "Remember, you're talking to a shapeshifter. Whatever tools are needed, I can create them out of my own body! As for medicine, if it's a plant or animal product, I've got that covered, too. What else do I need, huh?"
  "Medical training. Have you any?"
  "I'm just a layman. But you can talk me through some procedures, can't you?"
  "I don't think that would be a good idea, Quentin."
  "Because he might die? So what! You've already written him off, so what the hell do you care if he croaks?"
  Gary looked sadly at me for a long moment, then (his voice still calm and quiet) said: "It's you I'm worried about. Have you ever had a patient die in your arms, in spite of your best efforts?"
  I didn't answer. My heart sank, for that was an aspect of the situation I hadn't considered. Gary broke the silence: "I didn't think so. Forget him, Quentin -- for your own good. Barring an act of God, there's nothing anyone can do to keep that man from dying."
  That's when I made my decision -- or maybe it was when I became consciously aware of the decision I'd already made, I'm not sure. Up on the surface, I wasted a little more time trying to persuade Gary to assist me, as I knew my own medical knowledge was too limited to serve in this situation. Meanwhile, down underneath 17-X, I altered the seeker a little, and then I bit into a vein. In effect, my seeker was acting as a kind of dialysis unit. But instead of filtering waste products out of the patient's blood, it was adding my symbiote and upgraded ribosomes.
  I'd made sure that the seeker's blood type matched the patient's, so that wasn't a problem. The question was, had I given him the transfusion early enough to make a difference? Would his body survive long enough for the symbiote to spread to all of his cells? Had I been a religious man, I would have been praying up a storm now...

thursday, 11:19 am
new york city

  Another Changeling showed up uninvited. This one was a bipedal wolf with a ridiculously exaggerated Spanish accent, who called himself "Lobo de Loup-Garou". My cheetah-ish body met him, while my other bodies did their respective things. He'd been waiting at the police cordon around the zone for about 15 minutes, and he wasn't at all happy about it.
  Lobo was full of bluster, which I discounted, as I could smell his fear. I wasn't going to begrudge anyone their tactics for coping with the ghastly situation. "Meester el Senor Long!" he said when I approached. "Thees hombres, they do not let me to locate el survivors! What for seelly game are you playeeng here?"
  "No game. We just want to make sure we're using you to your best advantage, that's all. Follow me, and we'll check out what you've got to offer, okay?"
  "Checkeeng the out of me, she is muy estupido! Eet ees the stren'th and the smelling nose of myself, si?" But for all his protesting, he did follow me to a particular pile of rubble.
  "Okay, here's some trash for you to take out. Let's see -- hold it!" I did a doubletake, for he'd gone straight to a much larger pile than the one I'd pointed out.
  "Hold it? Ees to be notheeng for holdeeng, Senor el Long!" he said, grabbing smaller pieces and tossing them behind him, careless of what they might land on.
  "Hold it! Seriously! You're digging into the base, and you don't want to do that."
  "Caramba! Perhaps you have the fear, Senor el Long, but Lobo de Loup-Garou is the brave one!"
  That's when he removed something important and the pile collapsed on him, a multi-ton avalanche of structural steel and concrete. I started pulling it off of him before it finished settling, and this time it was me throwing debris carelessly.
  I stopped when I saw the rebar protruding from his ribcage, and the squishy fur-bag that had formerly been his head...

friday, 8:40 pm
new york city

  In my seeker form, I was slithering between chunks of concrete, deep beneath the surface of the piles of rubble, cruising for bodies. In my dump truck form, I was hauling off debris by the hundredweight. In my cheetah form, I was pacing and worrying about us Changelings. That damned Event had turned all our lives upside down, and some List-members' sanity hadn't survived the experience. The tiger-ish Flare was definitely capable of cold-blooded murder, even if he hadn't yet been proven guilty; Wicrae might be undersized for a dragon, but she was apparently more than large enough to kill and eat a human, and since she'd turned herself in, it was only the continuing legal arguments over her state of competency that stayed the execution she hoped for; as for Greyflank, the semi-equine darling of MTV who'd broken Tom Green's neck on national television... he was in Bellevue now, best not to dwell on him. And then there was that poor, sad, stupid Lobo...
  I slithered as a seeker. I carried debris as a truck. I worried as a cheetah. Hazelton had graduated boot camp with highest honors, and he'd just plain snapped; I hoped the problem was something stupid, like maybe he'd forgotten to eat, because I sure didn't like the alternatives. Spirit Walker was a fearsome creature, his obvious rage never far from the surface, and I hoped he continued to keep it under control. Duriak, the Eagle scout, seemed to be bearing up well; God only knew where he was finding the strength. Brotzman, well, he was a dragon. I wished his handlers had been more forthcoming about his pre-psychotic episode last month, because what little information they'd released raised more questions than it answered...
  As a seeker, I slithered. As a truck, I carried. As a cheetah... I looked at the rubble piled up before me. Try as I might, I couldn't persuade myself that there was any less of the stuff now than when I got here. After all the tons upon tons of debris that had been hauled away, this pile looked just as big as it ever had. No -- not a pile, it was a wall. An unbreachable wall whose bricks were shattered concrete and steel, mortared in place with human lives. Even Hazelton, the gung-ho Marine, broke against that wall without leaving a dent. It was eternal, infinite, unchanging. We could carry off pieces of it forever, and it wouldn't make any difference. Maybe we would carry off pieces of it forever. Maybe we were all dead and in Hell, and this was our eternal punishment. Maybe the piles were growing, replacing their substance faster than we could haul it away, and we were forever doomed to a ruined world of ear-breaking noise and nose-breaking odors and layered ash and dush an inch thick on everything including people and an endless supply of corpses...
  After a while I noticed people around me, voices. They didn't matter. Nothing did; after all, we were in Hell. Somebody led me away. I could have resisted, but why bother? One neighborhood in Hell was just as good, or bad, as another.
  The body lived -- the body would always live -- but the mind wasn't so sure it wanted to go on. I was too numb to welcome the blackness when it came...

thursday afternoon
new york city

  I wasn't paying attention when the first drops fell, so I don't know what time it was when it started raining. Thank God for the rain; pulled dust out of the air that would otherwise clog people's lungs, and rinsed away the ever-present stench, to boot. Cut visibility down pretty good, too. I wouldn't miss what I couldn't see. And of course it would also help cool down the hotspots in the rubble piles, which had been playing hell with my seekers' infrared sense.
  Oh, and the body still wasn't tired. After more than 50 straight hours of unbroken activity, I wasn't tired. Usually I sleep once every day or two, if only from force of habit, but here and now, I was in it for the duration. I wonder what Dr. Hobart would have to say about this?

saturday, after dark
somewhere near new york city

  I felt cold wind in my face.
  The air smelled clean.
  Somebody must have moved me to a better section of Hell.
  And then the wind and the slow rhythm of the chuffing noise stopped.
  "Lord Cubist," said a basso voice -- Brotzman.
  I opened my eyes. Definitely a different section of Hell; I recognized none of the shapes that were silhouetted around me. I didn't bother moving my eyes. Peripheral vision was good enough. It was dark; stars twinkled overhead. I was seated on the dragon's back, held in place by some kind of harness. Brotzman's head was craned around backwards to look at me.
  "Inasmuch as you were asleep for 27 hours ere I transported you here, milord, I trust I need not ask your pardon for disturbing your rest. Are you well?"
  The obvious line would have been 'I feel much better now,' except I couldn't even see 'better' from where I was. Not only did I not feel better, I was having a hard time feeling anything. For all I knew, maybe I'd shapeshifted while I was out of it, used the power subconsciously, rewired my brain to kill the horror. Or maybe I was still shell-shocked? Whatever. I didn't bother to respond.
  "Perhaps you would care to dismount, milord, so that we may converse more comfortably?"
  Time passed in silence. Brotzman muttered something that could've used a few more vowels, then made the riding harness go slack and reached one foreleg up to grab me and deposit me on the waterlogged ground. I didn't bother asking where swampland could be found in Hell.
  One of his forelegs raised me from the horizontal position I'd slumped into, got me sitting. Suddenly light glinted off of fast-moving talons, there was a moment of sharp pain between shoulders and jaws, and then the world spun around me. Of course; Brotzman's claws were built for cutting off heads, so why not mine? The problem was, I'd felt it when Brotzman decapitated me. I felt it! I found words: "What the hell was that for, you overgrown lizard!" Of course nothing came out of my mouth -- my lungs were over there, I had no way to push air through my larynx.
  Brotzman smiled. "Perhaps you shall be a better conversationalist after body and brain are re-united, Lord Cubist. Allow me to assist you."
  My eyes widened and I mouthed, "No! Don't! Not that!", but he either didn't notice or didn't care; he pressed my neck's two exposed stump-ends together and held my head in place. Before long, I felt the first ghost-sensations as my spine started to re-knit, followed closely by inhuman agony, the anticipation of which had spurred me to panicky, silent screaming. Only once before had my spine been damaged this seriously. Yes, I healed, but I can assure you, the neurons don't always make the right hookups! Among other problems, lots of extraneous nerves end up connected directly to the pain centers. Thankfully, this phase doesn't seem to last long -- apparently, my body can deal with a miswired CNS as easily as it does a completely new nervous system -- but before it ends, I've got a front-row ticket for the tortures of the damned.
  It hurt. God, did it ever... Fortunately, I lost consciousness somewhere in there.

wednesday, 6:39 am
new york city

  We touched down at some random airfield or other, I didn't bother making a note of which one. I was awfully glad other people were keeping their heads; if it had been up to me, I'm not sure where we ended up at, nor when we would have arrived.
  It took me and the horses about half an hour to reach our final destination, the site of the attack. When we arrived, we were greeted with what struck me as exaggerated courtesy. What the hell; I followed suit, and we were in.
  We weren't the first Changelings on the scene: A centaur harnessed to a rubble-laden cart trotted by as we walked to the foreman. I recognized the half-horse as Chris Duriak from Boy Scout propaganda -- what with all the bad PR the Scouts got over their stance on homosexuals, they had an ad campaign which used Duriak as living proof that they weren't intolerant after all, and him being an Eagle Scout sure didn't hurt, either. I thought I could see a couple of other Changelings in among the human crews, but all the dust (in the air and on people's skin/fur/clothes) made it hard to tell.
  A couple of engineers interviewed us to find out exactly what we could bring to the party, and used that information to decide what we'd be doing. Teel and Pakesh joined a team dismantling a pile of rubble; I sent my pair of seekers into another pile, searching for life signs while my cheetah-ish body spoke with some firemen who were taking a five-minute break.

saturday, after dark
somewhere near new york city

  Brotzman's saurian face before me wasn't what I expected to wake up to. I felt no physical pain, and a few experimental gestures proved that my body had finished remaking all the right connections in my CNS. Well, my body might be in fine shape, but my mind was anything but. I felt broken and vulnerable as I looked into the dragon's eyes.
  "Because." After a longish silence, he went on: "Perhaps you would care to discuss it, milord?"
  I shook my head. "What's to discuss? You don't understand, Brotzman. Maybe you can't understand. You're a big, strong, powerful dragon, all covered in metal armor! You never have to feel anything. Nothing can hurt you, so you don't have to care!
  "But I'm no dragon. I haven't got armor; whatever happens to me, I do feel it. And... Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it hurts a lot.
  "I shouldn't have come here. I thought I could play superhero, but... not only haven't I saved the day, I haven't saved anything. You don't need a shapeshifter for anything I've been able to do. All I've done is find corpses and get in the way of people who know what they're doing..." I babbled for a while longer until there wasn't anything more to say. Took maybe 90 seconds, tops.
  After a dignified pause, Brotzman coldly said, "If you are quite done with pitying yourself, milord, I shall thank you not to presume you know what a dragon does or does not care about. As for the rest of your disrespect... Inasmuch as it is your wounds speaking --"
  "Wounds! What wounds? Get with the program, scaleface -- I don't get wounded! I'm invulnerable! I'm a fucking Timex, I can take any licking and keep right on ticking! I'm -- gghhllrrg --" That's where my words drowned in a fountain of blood as Brotzman gouged a deep, gaping slash across my throat.
  "Thank you, milord. You should know that the wounds I refer to are not physical, but spiritual. I tell you now, the carnage that was inflicted upon this city is truly enough to make a dragon weep! No, Lord Cubist, my silver scales afford me no protection against the sort of injury I was dealt on the 11th. And unless I am gravely mistaken, your own special abilities are equally useless in this context.
  "The question is, how does one respond when the very soul burns with agony? There are those who would curl in on themselves in a catatonic ball, abandoning Life itself rather than risk the pain that Life can bring... but then there are others as well. There are those who find within themselves the strength to carry on in spite of that pain, those who face the world though their souls be alive with torment.
  "I count myself among the latter. And I deem you such as well, Lord Cubist, for I know something of you. Indeed, how can anyone be unaware of one as media-obsequious as you have created yourself to be?
  "In particular, I am mindful of an interview in which you said that as far as you were concerned, every day is January 23. The interrogator took that remark as a joke, which I am certain was your intent, but I am likewise certain that you also intended a deeper meaning." He paused, as though collecting his thoughts. By now the spurting blood was reduced to a trickle, but my throat wasn't yet healed enough for me to talk.
  When he spoke again, his tone was quiet, reflective, as if he were revealing a terrible secret. Perhaps he was. "When I assumed my present form... I was in no way prepared for so complete and fundamental an alteration to my very self. I then lacked the wherewithal to either comprehend or cope with what I had become. In truth, milord, it was the single greatest blow to my sanity that I have ever experienced -- and I tell you that I barely survived it."
  Now he looked seriously into my eyes. "Tell me, Lord Cubist: How many changes of form have you experienced?"
  I gave an experimental "Hmm" to find out if I could talk yet. I could, but it felt like it would be wise to match the dragon's low tones. "I don't know -- I stopped counting a while back. Maybe a couple of hundred?"
  "'A couple of hundred'," Brotzman echoed. "Where one transformation was very nearly my undoing, you have withstood them by the score."
  Maybe my brain was still a little fuzzy, but I didn't see what he was driving at. "What of it?"
  "My point is this: You are strong, milord -- stronger than you know. Too strong to display even momentary discomfort before the humans. Such a spectacle is beneath you."
  I managed to find a smile somewhere. "You didn't break down, and you're praising the strength of someone who did?"
  Brotzman gave a draconic shrug. "It is not my place to gainsay your particular method for dealing with the stress. As for myself, do not imagine that my own soul is unaffected by what I have seen and done; the difference between us is that you have allowed yourself to react to the ongoing horror. I have not, but I know I cannot bottle it all up forever. So when my presence here is no longer a boon, I intend to take a vacation. It will be a short sabbatical -- ten days, ten years -- just long enough that I may regain my equilibrium."
  Something clicked in my head; things were beginning to make sense. "You brought me here for a little shock treatment, didn't you? That's why you slit my throat and... How the hell did you know I'd survive decapitation, anyway?"
  He looked as smug as only a dragon can. "Perhaps I shall tell you some day. In the mean time, may I suggest that we return to our assigned tasks?"
  Go back into that hellhole? Voluntarily!? My thoughts must have been plain on my face, for Brotzman cocked his head at me with a thoughtful expression. "I see. Would you care to grant me the honor of your presence during a short journey, Lord Cubist?"

sunday, before dawn
new york city

  We glided over the island, me strapped in on Brotzman's back between his fully extended wings. The eastern rim of the horizon was looking reddish. "Observe, milord. Dawn breaks."
  I observed. When a dragon talks, people listen -- even me. Guess what? Sunrise over Manhattan does have a certain beauty to it, especially when you're seeing it from dragonback.
  "Thank you, Mike. I needed this."
  "No prob and no charge, Cube."
  I couldn't help but laugh. "'No prob and no charge'? Why don't you talk like that all the time?"
  "Formality comes very easily to me, especially when I'm nervous or angry or just not in a good mood."
  "And there hasn't been much to feel good about lately."
  "Got that right. In any case, I'll thank you not to talk about my speech patterns; we dragons have a reputation to maintain."
  We floated in silence for a while. The shadows of the buildings shortened.
  "Do you still want to run away?"
  His question only sounded incomplete -- we both knew 'from what'. I watched as New York City drifted by below us.
  "I don't know. Now that I'm thinking straight, I can see that I have done some good down there... but it hurts, Mike. Big time."
  "And they feel no pain?"
  Again, the dragon's question was more complete than it seemed. Everybody's hurting down there. Everybody human, at least. Something bright at a street corner caught my eye; it looked like a booth from a technology expo. The guy manning it was giving away cell phones, no contracts nor money in sight, and his 'customers' were making a whole lot of calls.
  This would be so much simpler if I were my character, Jubatus; avoiding pain is what he's all about. He'd be outta here in a millisecond, and never look back.
  But I'm not Jubatus, and thank God for that.
  Below us was a restaurant with a boarded-up window. There were big, hand-drawn letters on the wood -- SORRY ABOUT THE MESS! -- and a table with a cash register and a large number of plastic-wrapped meals on it. Before we drifted out of range, I noticed two people walking away with food, only one of whom had actually paid for it. The guy manning the register knew what was going on, and was okay with it.
  "Brotzman? You're showing me this for a reason, aren't you."
  "I am. I felt you should watch as the citizens of New York City go about their daily business. Even after the grievous blows that were struck, they continue to live, to love, to make money, to succor the needy -- all the myriad tasks of civilization. It is true that thousands died on the 11th; it is equally true that none of those before you now will outlive Tuesday's victims by more than a paltry few decades. Indeed, it is only a matter of time before all die, before entropy conquers everything. Even I will die, for a lifespan measured in tens of millenia is just as finite as one measured in tens of years. But death is not important. What matters is not that one dies, but, rather what one does before the inevitable end!
  "You have spoken of pain; I tell you now that in all of Earth's history, there is not one human whose life has ever been free of pain! It is one of the constants of the Universe, milord Cubist. It always has been, and ever will be. And we are all of us the descendants of those who refused to be conquered by pain. The strength to carry on in the face of hopelessness and suffering, is part of the genetic legacy all humans carry within them. For those who lacked such strength... left no progeny to pollute the gene pool. The strength of your forefathers is part of you, Lord Cubist -- and what's more, that strength is only multiplied by your remarkable abilities. I truly believe that there is nothing in the world which can kill you while you still wish to live!
  "You had earlier stated a desire to leave this place of horror, but you were not yourself at the time. Now that you have regained your equilibrium, what say you?"
  By now, Brotzman had climbed to somewhere over 1,000 feet; we had a clear view of practically everything. I looked at the plume of smoke rising from the pocket of Hell on Manhattan's southern tip. Then the place where the Statue of Liberty wasn't any more, taken out by a second hijacked jet that had somehow been diverted from its original target, the North Tower. Finally I looked over the rest of the city, the surrounding territories where people still got up, put their pants on one leg at a time, and coped with life as best they could.
  There was never really a choice. Not for me, anyway.
  "Let's go back. We've both got work to do."
  "By your command, milord."
  It was something like a joke, but not much. I smiled anyway. "Don't quit your day job, Mike."
  I could practically hear his smile. "As if. Why do you think we're going back, Cube?"
  "Because clearing wreckage away will feel so good when we stop."

  September 11, 2001... A day that will live in infamy. The day the world changed forever. I'm sure you've heard those cliches, and many more. But as trite as they are, those phrases are true! The world did change, and it would never be the same again. If you wanted to say that reality shifted, you wouldn't get any argument from me. Many people were hit hard by the events of that day. In the days and weeks that followed, some people said and did things they'd regret later; some kept cooler heads; some had to alter various plans to match the new reality.
  Basically, all of the above is a pretentious way of saying that no matter what else changed, humanity stayed the same. You may think the answers to all socio-cultural ills are found in capitalism, socialism, or whatever other -ism; you may put your faith in in Buddhism, some flavor of Christianity, or no religion at all; your skin may be covered with fur, feathers, scales, or designer-label clothes. Whatever the case may be, you're a human being, just like the rest of us.
  It's easy for most people to forget the fundamental unity of humankind, let themselves be blinded by external crap like skin color or language... but not me. Not any more; not since I became a shapeshifter. I know, deep in my soul, that what matters is what's inside, that the physical instrument is just a vehicle. But then, my own external crap is subject to change without notice. For people who can't shapeshift, people whose physical form is basically fixed, I guess it might be real easy to be distracted by the obvious differences in physical instruments.
  Maybe I can help out here. I'm a media darling, maybe I can use that to get the message across to people en masse. Not gonna be a short-term project, that's for sure. But I don't mind if it takes a while; after all, I'm practically immortal.
  I've got plenty of time...

part 2