1: dan catches cold
Just back from a long lunch, time to cinch the belt out a notch,
give that pasta some room to expand. Coffee machine? No. Don't
need that 'tenth-cup-of-the-day' feeling. Just a few minutes before
one, but almost everyone else in the shop is either still out,
or have gone home early because of the ice storm. Seem to have
the place to myself, so maybe just a quick check of the TSA list.
I log into my other email service, not wanting to have to explain TSA to the busybodies who monitor the official one. Twenty-six new messages, mostly 'RE: Nature of Reality.' I'm getting tired of that thread. I figure since it's my imagination, after all, I can imagine whatever reality I want.
A twinge of pain in my lower back, time to think about adjusting the seat again, but can't bring myself to stand up and turn the darn thing upside down to reach the screw. Now my ankle itches, so I pull one foot up to scratch, propping the other on the file cabinet. Jim, the section supervisor, comes back from the gym and I quickly reach over and switch my active window back to the Polish Air Defense School's website. His sweatsuit is soaked, and he grabs the hanger with his clean clothes hanging on the partition. He remarks,
"You ought to go home, it's getting pretty bad out there." The boss heads down the hall to take his shower.
I call out loud enough that he'll hear me, "I'm going to finish some stuff first. My new truck's got four wheel drive and lots of sand in the back, so I shouldn't have too much trouble unless some idiot hits me." I contemplate describing the truck further, but have pity on you poor readers.
Another pain, sharp this time, sends a spasm rippling along the entire length of my digestive tract. I think, Oh, god, I'm going to spew Alfredo sauce from both ends at once. Must have been bad shrimp. I clutch my stomach, bent over in the seat, as the changes begin in earnest. Rapid loss of mass from all four limbs, they become thinner and shorten, my sleeves and pants bunch up. I let out a groan, becoming a growl as the bones of my jaw and face elongate. My ribs flex, bowing out, deepening and narrowing the chest cavity. More pain as my shoulders and hips rearrange. But the worst is over in a few seconds. About as much pain as wisdom tooth extraction, really no worse than chiropractic adjustment. No blood, no other unidentified fluids. John Carpenter would be so disappointed.
But now I'm trapped within my shirt and pants, the tie and belt acting like two straightjacket straps holding the now-loose fabric. Now the epic struggle begins. Frantic kicks get my legs free of the pants, but have started the chair swiveling, turning me to face Jim's desk. Fortunately he's still gone. I spin another half turn, trying with increasing desperation to free myself, popping buttons from the shirt. With a final jerk, the shirt rips, the motion overbalancing my cheap GSA schedule executive chair, which promptly flips me onto the floor. I howl in pain as my wings are pinned by my body. I roll over on my chest, freeing them.
Wings? Yes, big bat-like wings, wrapped tightly around my body, still caught in the middle by my t-shirt. The stretchy fabric defeats my claws. Finally, I worry it in half with my teeth.
The pain over, it's obvious I've undergone some changes. Good thing I was reading that list. Of course I'm surprised, I mean, who wouldn't be? But not upset. I mean, you can't spend two years writing thousands of words about transformation, about furs, and then be upset when you change into one. Okay, let's see what I've got here.
Definitely a transformation, yep. A large, winged mammal, by the feel of it. I hold a clawed paw with short, stubby fingers in front of my new blunt, furry snout. Hmmm, didn't even feel the fur grow in. Must have been distracted. Stick a finger inside my mouth, feeling exaggerated canine teeth. A carnivore, I guess. I wonder what? Not a fox, or wolf or a big cat, certainly not anything I'd ever imagined. I wiggle the fingers. No dexterity winner here, they close perhaps two-thirds of a fist, just enough for the tips to touch, claws overlapped. Have to try typing later; see if the clawtips damage the keys.
Now why this shape? I don't remember -- no, wait. There was that one story, the one I abandoned after six chapters. It was the only one I'd ever had dreams about: Timm, the welsh dragon. This body is a scale (though not scaled) model of that imagined, chimerical form. He had been a scruffy, shaggy, hairy big lizard, the kind you'd get if drawn by medieval scribes who'd never really seen a reptile: More like three parts wolf, one part cat, one part bat. And that 'dragon' had been twenty feet long, not the eight feet of my present shape. Hollow bones and all, he'd been nearly a ton and a half. Whereas, I'll bet I still weigh 225. Another stunning victory for Science: My belief in conservation of mass outvotes my belief in magic.
And Timm had been a shapeshifter. I concentrate on changing, or at least wrinkle my forehead, but nothing moves. And hadn't he been herma..? I quickly reach down and check between my rear legs. No, that was a different fantasy.
OK, so I'm a dragon, sort of. A small, low budget, non-fire-breathing, probably non-flying dragon. Going to be hard to haul off those maidens when I'm this small. Speaking of maidens: This one's going to be tough to explain when I get home. My stomach growls again, and I brace myself for more change. Nothing happens, just telling me I'm hungry. Probably converted lunch into what little mass I've got. Maybe if I eat, I'll bulk up some? I wonder what I eat? Timm ate dormitory food, as I recall. Yuck.
I realize, with a start, that I've been examining myself for several minutes now. My boss or one of the secretaries must have heard the crash of the chair flipping, so where were they? The room, no the whole floor was silent. Maybe everybody has changed? I walk over to sniff around Jim's desk, discovering nothing but his fragrant gym suit. I check for small animals hiding under the secretaries' desks, just in case they'd transformed into something small. Nothing. At that moment, I hear the unmistakable 'clang' as the vault door, always propped open during duty hours, closes.
Great, I'm trapped. Jim's sealed the main door, trapping me inside. Why couldn't I have one of those ineffectual bosses like Dilbert has? Wait. There's that stupid fire escape, better known as the smoking deck. Grabbing my wallet and keys in my mouth, I take off running for the far end of the floor. Why a building with a two-ton vault door at the front only has a thin metal fire door at the back is beyond me. Still, there it is, so out I go.
The fire escape opens onto a metal freestanding staircase behind the building. A heavy coating of ice makes traction impossible, and I finally end up wrapping both my forelegs around the pipe railing and inching down backwards, hind claws dug into the metal grating. The freezing rain soaks right through my fur as I climb. Halfway down, I hear a voice from below:
"I've got a 12 gauge pointed right at you. Stay right there, both hands on the rail, and start convincing me you're Dan." What did I say about indecisive? Add a comment about what the office's 'no guns in the building' policy has done to the regular arms bazaar my co-workers conduct. Everyone just leaves them in the car, now.
Dropping my wallet from my mouth, I try speaking. Glory be, a miracle! I'd always imagined Timm with a clear voice, and whatever has transformed me has copied that little detail too. Speaking quickly, I spew out biographical details, describe the project I'm working on. Finally convinced, Jim puts the shotgun back in the cab of his Suburban, and I carefully climb down onto the icy ground. He tries to get me to go to the hospital, but all I want to do is go home.
" Boss, It's freezing out here, and I'm soaked! Can't I just take the rest of the day off?"
2: dragons love trucks!
After Jim finally decided not to smear me across the side of
the building with No. 6 shot, I grabbed my keys and wallet out
of the slush and walk to where I had parked my truck.
I seem to be designed to be a quadruped. Good traction, though: Only a little sliding on the icy pavement of the back parking lot, probably no worse than it would have been in my boots. Standing next to the door of my new truck (I'm still not going to describe it -- don't worry), my head is about three feet off the ground, about halfway up the door. Time for a dexterity test. Squatting back on what I can only call my haunches, I lift one foreleg and slip the keyring onto a claw, pinching the door key against the adjacent finger. I raise my other foreleg, quickly resting it against the cab of the truck before I lose my balance. I wince as my claws scratch against the new, smooth paint job. Insert key. Canting my head and holding my tongue right helps, as my muzzle provides an unneeded distraction and tends to cross my eyes if I focus binocular vision on something too close. Not too bad dexterity, I get the key in the lock on the first try.
Now to open the door. Not good. I have almost no strength lifting up on the handle with my paw/hand. Seems designed to pull toward me, not push. I finally grab it with my lower fangs and pop it open, the weight of the full-size 2001 Dodge pickup's door (sorry) knocking me backwards onto the ice. Muttering a few choice expletives, I climb up into the cab and stretch out on the bench seat. My foreleg pulls the door closed just fine, although my claw tips pinprick the upholstery. Key trick repeated in the ignition, and it starts right up. As I begin to think about how I'm going to drive this thing, I look out through the nearly opaque, iced-over windshield. Screw it. I'm not opening that door again, climbing up on the hood and scraping it. I turn the heater up full blast and settle back to wait for it to melt.
OK, I've always said I do my best thinking while driving, now's my chance. Let's review the bidding: I suddenly change into a dragon-like creature like one I almost wrote a story about once. I've had detailed dreams where I had imagined myself as the creature, where I had clearly wanted to be that creature. I'd suspect I'm dreaming right now, but I'm not about to pinch myself with these claws. Let's just assume it really happened. Could it be a coincidence that I also belong to a mailing list where people discuss transformations, one where a standard discussion topic is 'what would you do if..?' I wonder if anyone else has changed, and into what? If I ever get home, I'll be sure to check my email.
The defrost is beginning to make a dent in the ice, but not in the chill I'm feeling from the soaking the freezing rain gave me. Fur helps, but bat-style wings apparently provide a lot of surface area to radiate away my body heat; that might even be their function. I'm also starving. The sack of groceries on the floorboards next to me rips as I dive into it. A loaf of bread, a dozen eggs (shells and all, raw, and nearly frozen) and a gallon bottle of sport drink disappear down my throat without making a dent in my appetite. I contemplate the other sack: A five-pound bag of dog biscuits. With a mental shrug of my shoulders, I taste the first one. Not bad, kind of like a bland ginger cookie. Three pounds later, my stomach is full. Maybe the dog I bought them for will get to eat some tonight, after all.
The window is melted now. Time to decide whether I'm still a first-class citizen: Can I drive? Lowering my rear legs to the floorboards, I rest my butt on the front edge of the seat and both forepaws on the wheel. My wings and tail need careful positioning to avoid pinching under me, but the seat has plenty of space behind my back. Kind of like driving standing up. The truck is automatic, fortunately. My right foot will reach the pedals, it seems, and it looks like I can turn the wheel if I let my claws shred the vinyl in order to grip it firmly. One last adjustment of the mirror, and I throw it into 4 wheel drive and shift out of park.
I drive home slowly, the icy roads an ally in this instance. A few oncoming drivers might have noticed me, but who really looks at the driver of a vehicle? I spend the trip thinking about what to do next. Melissa will not be as happy as I am about this, I'm thinking.
3: the wrath of mom
Pulling up in front of our farmhouse, I see my margin of safety
just shrank: Melissa's Jeep is already there, and the dog is loose
in the yard. She must have been released from work early, too.
So now, instead of three hours to plan, I have only fifteen yards
and less than a minute to: One, get to the front door without
slipping on the sidewalk, while simultaneously fending off (without
harming) the dog. Two, open the door with my claws and teeth and
get inside before she can lock it. Three, come up with a good
One and two went surprisingly well. By sticking to the ice-covered grass rather than the concrete, my claws provided traction. Fifty-pound Chow-Sheppard mixes are fearless but not stupid; he confined his aggression to raising his ruff, barking and growling, all from a safe distance. The screen door took a bad hit and will probably have to be replaced when this is all over, but I got the front door open while my wife was still extracting her beautiful, antique, and very pointy pitchfork from the umbrella stand.
I thought for an instant about taking it away from her, but decided at the last second on an alternate technique: I threw myself on my back on the floor (my wings, again: ouch!), covered as many vital spots as I could with my crossed legs and whimpered, "Don't hurt me!" as pitifully and often as I could. It worked well enough that she backed off and grounded her weapon. I won't repeat all I said to convince her that I was still me. I used more of the same mix of facts and personal data I had with Jim (wincing as I got our anniversary wrong by a week like I always do, the point I think finally convinced her.)
Ten minutes of fast-talking brought us to the living room, where I curled up on the couch while she sat across the room on the love seat. I'd started speculating aloud about becoming a character in a story I'd written when I realized I had never bothered to tell her that I write stories in the first place. Errors of omission and errors of commission are a distinction without difference in our relationship. She became more pointed and direct with her questions as I told her about the List (My wife is by choice not computer-savvy. All she knows about the Internet is what she's seen on TV or in women's magazines. She fears the worst, though, so I've long chosen a path of minimizing her fears rather than debunking them. Therefore, we now all became just "a group of people who like to write stories with talking animals in them." Hopefully, I'll be long dead before I have to explain TG or, gods forbid, spooge.)
I'm not a novice in arguments with her, so I caved in as soon as I could. By shutting up at that point, I kept her key complaint reduced to my having secret friends she didn't know. I didn't offer any defense or rebuttal. Just apologized, assured her I love her. After all, she was mad at me, not the reverse. Maybe it's not healthy, but it has worked so far. And she never actually said anything bad about my new shape.
Once she'd run out of steam and started crying softly, it was time to be supportive. This normally involves sitting beside her on the couch and holding her hand, but I had a problem. Okay, several problems. As carefully and slowly as I could, I eased up off our couch and negotiated my way around the coffee table, the western saddle on it's stand, and the copper rooster weather vane that take up the floor space in the obstacle course we call a living room. Not easy as a human, fiendishly tough as a dragon. I had to stop and disentangle one wing from the rooster's sharp, fragile beak, but I finally arrived at the love seat. I would never fit up there beside her, so I took a lesson from my dog: I sat down on the rug and leaned against the side of the chair, resting my head (ever-so-lightly) on her knee.
We sat like that, without speaking, for half an hour. My neck was kinked and my stomach was more acid than it ever had been as a human in this same situation. Possibly a more delicate digestion in this form? I'd hoped for the opposite, considering I was really hungry again less than an hour after a very bulky meal. Some of my distress was because I could now hear the subsonic tones from her sobbing. And, of course, I was upset because she was upset at me. Toward the end, she rested her hand on my head and began rubbing my fur, maybe unconsciously, but it still was appreciated. To break the impasse, I suggested she would feel better if she washed her face.
While she was in the bathroom she decided to bathe instead, which gave me some time. Starving, I went into the kitchen and made fair progress cleaning out the refrigerator, eating everything containing some meat. I was still hungry; so I stuck my snout into the 30-gallon galvanized can we keep the dog food inside, scarfing perhaps fifteen pounds of food. Sated, I listened to hear if she was still in the tub.
Now for a return to problem one from the original set. Remember the dog? He was still outside in the cold, and his schedule required one of us feed him a treat at precisely five PM every day. I hoped that punctuality would draw him to the door, and sure enough, as I opened it, he charged inside. Pulling him by his collar into a hammerlock under my forearm, I held him tight against me and spoke soothingly while I made sure he got a good whiff of my scent. It didn't smell any different to me, and I hoped he'd come to the same conclusion. And anyway, I wanted to remind him who was boss. Finally, he quit struggling and I handed him the treat as I let him go. He ran into the other room with his tail and ears down. I'm not sure exactly what message he got from all that, but at least he wasn't growling any more.
I heard Melissa leave the bath for our bedroom. I gave her a few minutes to settle herself, and then joined her. As I thought, she crawled straight into bed and buried her face into her pillow. Been here before, too, so I lay down on the bed beside her and got comfortable. In human form, I would have slept all night with just a hand touching her, but here I found a dragon's form has advantages. With my fur, I didn't have to get underneath the covers; and I could finally spread my wings, covering her in the process. The skin on them had enough sensation that I could feel her bare shoulder, with her body heat reflected back by the fine fur that covered them. The worst of the storm weathered, I eventually slept.
4: today's tom sawyer
We passed the night without further incident. A few more apologies
while we woke up, some strategically timed hugs (gently, carefully
on my part, I don't want her afraid of my new shape; more fierce
on her part, I've been forgiven for now). We talked practicalities
while she dressed for work: What could I still do, what limits
did I have. I had to tell her I didn't know, as I hadn't had too
much time to do anything on the trip home. I promised to do some
tests while I was at the house.
Speaking of which, I called Jim right after seven to tell him I was taking some time off.
"You've probably got a good excuse. Your condition made the news last night, there are other people who've been changed. Nobody seems to know what's caused it, but --" Jim lowered his voice. "I think they're worried about infection. I got called last night by Guard Bureau, kicking me loose some mobilization funds: They've activated all the Bio Teams until further notice."
This was a worrying development. These small military units were made up of guardsmen based in major cities; whose mission was preparedness for biological attack. I'd written some parts of the early draft of their training program (Rule 1: Wash your hands before handling food!!!) when the concept was developed a few years ago. The teams were OK when training local fire department hazardous materials teams, but might be a blunt (and overeager) instrument in the present case. I told him I'd rather avoid them if at all possible. He gave me the cell phone number of the detachment commander in case I changed my mind.
As I've said before, an advantage of being rural is fewer layers of bureaucracy between the citizen and his elected officials. My second call was to the Sheriff. Bypassing 911 by calling his still-listed office number, the office clerk switched me to him after I explained it was extremely important that I talk to him before somebody did something stupid. I recognized his voice; we'd both attended some county political events while he was last running for election.
"You know we record this line too, any more," were his first words after I'd introduced myself.
"I just wanted to pre-empt somebody coming out here to the house. I don't plan to be home, but I promise to stay away from everybody until the excitement dies down. Just wanted you to know." I hung up. Even if they'd already started out here when I first called, with the ice on the roads it would be a thirty-minute drive. While I explained to Melissa what I planned to do, I grabbed a wool blanket, poncho and matches (I was well-equipped with knives on the ends of my claws) and dragon-handled the trashcan with the rest of the dog food into our truck. She took a slight detour on the way to work, depositing my supplies and me at a popular illegal trash dumping spot along the Missouri river bluffs.
She didn't actually kiss me on the lips before she drove away, but I got another hug. I stored blanket and matches inside the trashcan and covered it with construction debris, making sure the lid was tight. At the rate I was eating, the remaining food would last perhaps two days, but I'd asked her to dump a new bag in whenever she thought she could do it without being observed.
I started off into the woods, thought for a moment, then went back and ate another few pounds for luck. Walking in the woods, I used my sharpened hearing to listen for wildlife. A few birdcalls, some squirrels; nothing I hadn't heard before. And the loud, disturbing crunch of my footsteps. I loosened and slowed my stride, trying to move silently. Ahhh, better! I moved along mid-slope, dodging around rock outcrops, looking for something I'd read about but never found.
During the late nineteenth century, as the railroad was extended along this stretch of the river, it became briefly profitable to mine coal and lead from small seams along here. I hoped to find one of these small holes in the bluff to hide from the inevitable helicopter with thermal camera that somebody would probably suggest by mid afternoon. I covered about a mile of bluff before I found a dark opening in the rock big enough for me to crawl into. Brief fears of wild animals, until I remembered that I was the biggest animal around. It was about thirty feet deep, dry, and empty. And maybe home.
I left the cave (mine?) and backtracked, brushing out my trail in those places where I had scuffed up the frozen leaves. Halfway back to the trash dump, something I'd been beginning to worry about happened: I finally excreted something, in the shape of a small pile of dense, dark droppings. Maybe a pound or two, only slightly more than I would have as a human, an insignificant amount considering how much I'd eaten. Either I was processing food more efficiently, or I was constipated.
Just before noon I returned to the dump, circling around to approach from the opposite side. There was another set of tire tracks over ours, but no footprints. With outside temperatures around -10 degrees C it was too early to expect them to be beating the bushes on foot. Maybe at first light tomorrow.
I wasn't especially hungry yet, but decided to see how well suited my new form was for hunting. Climbing back on top of the ridge I soon crossed a game trail which showed fresh deer tracks. This wasn't a great challenge, we're overpopulated with whitetails this year, but for the first time I smelled my quarry before I saw it. Lowering my body, I almost crawled through a patch of underbrush, arriving at the far side and a small, steep ravine, where three does were busy cropping twigs. I lay motionless and watched them eat for almost a minute before they discovered me and bolted. My body tensed and almost sprang on the nearest all by itself, but I held back: I wasn't really hungry, and so I let them go. The rest of the day was fun. I snuck up on another herd of deer, almost caught a turkey, and wandered around in sub-freezing temperatures barefoot without feeling cold. As the sun set, I returned to my food, ate a substantial portion and then went to the cave carrying my blanket over my back, a few matches knotted inside one corner. I collected a small amount of firewood there, but decided to see if I was well-insulated enough for a cold camp instead of lighting it. I wished I'd brought a book or radio, because I really couldn't do anything else once I crawled into the cave. I laid inside the entrance, watching the trees' shadows move as the moon rose. I could see as well as my slitted cat-eyes suggested. Maybe tomorrow night I'd try hunting after dark.
Later that night, I heard the approaching blades of the helicopter and withdrew further into my cave. I wondered how much game and livestock was going to be disturbed by police checking the hot spots he'd picked up tomorrow morning. I was warm enough that night; the blanket soon became a pad to soften the ground. When I woke it was moonset and the local coyotes decided to cry at it for a while. I tried to join in, but the best I could manage was a sort of yodel; I guess that was a trade-off for being able to speak.
As soon as it was light enough for me to see again, I went down and had breakfast. I had decided the best way to avoid the coming search was to get outside the perimeter as soon as they started, and that meant finding whatever trucks or busses they came in. The patch of woods I'd chosen was four miles long and not quite two wide, with highways on three sides, the river on the forth. The nearest parking area was in the small state park; less than half a mile away.
Unfortunately, whoever was organizing this little walk in the woods was an early riser. Two busses were there, along with several unmarked sedans and a Sheriff's Patrol Blazer, and a DNR truck with a bear cage on the back. The searchers were dividing into groups and drawing equipment, most were drinking steaming coffee that looked really good. I tried to edge around the group in order to cross the highway but could see another sedan cruising along it slowly. I ducked into the bushes as his spotlight swept the side of the road.
Unable to break out without being seen, I decided to stay in front of the search parties, hoping the terrain would separate them as they walked. What I hadn't counted on was the return of the helicopters. One had clearly spotted me. He circled my position, no doubt radioing the teams on the ground. I started for the river, hoping to duck into my cave or another like it, hoping I could elude the searchers until he ran out of fuel.
I walked, ran and zigged and zagged over three miles, being forced gradually closer to the river bluffs. I was easily able to stay ahead of the ground teams, but they quickly were corrected back onto my trail from the air. Finally, the bluffs almost in sight, the helicopter either ran out of fuel, or was called away on another emergency. But I now was out of wiggle room. I'd reached the bluffs.
At this point the river ran right along the base of the bluffs. From on top I could look down a gash that had been cut through the hardwood forest straight down the slope into the river for a pipeline right-of-way. Partway down, a lip of earth raised to prevent excess erosion made the resulting path resemble nothing so much as a ski slope. Standing there, clear of the trees, the strong west wind made keeping my wings folded nearly impossible. With the nearest of the search parties less than a hundred yards back into the woods, I decided it was time to test their utility.
I'd read someplace that lift increased with the square of the velocity of the air over an airfoil, so I began to run down slope, bounding at full, reckless extension of my body, wings folded back momentarily to reduce their resistance. In the last stride before I hit the lip, I planted both rear legs ahead of my front ones, hopping like a kangaroo or a broad jumper into the air. At the same moment, I thrust out my wings, scooped them forward and then back as if I was rowing, then locked them fully extended.
I nearly flipped completely upside down. A half-turn to the right helped me recover, and then an immediate left found me gliding down slope only a little ways above the trees. Seconds later I was out over the river about one hundred feet above the water. I lost altitude steadily at what I estimated was a five to one glide ratio. At this rate I would smack into the old-growth forest on the far side about ten feet up one of the massive oak or walnut trees trunk. I had left my pursuers behind. It would take an hour or better to redeploy on the far side: Different state, different jurisdiction.
But was that good enough? I was flying! Maybe dragons could fly, not just glide, and there was only one way to find out; and now was the time. I looked down at the chunks of ice floating in the swift current. I savored the icy wind and heard the cries of the geese. This was the moment I had imagined from the first time I ever dreamed of this form.
I flapped my wings.