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."
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)
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
"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?"
"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."
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
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,
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...
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
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...