by Bob Stein
"Bob Stein -- You're needed in the Virginia Room. Bob Stein,
please go to the main conference room."
I frown in annoyance when I hear my name over the speaker system -- I do have a telephone. A quick glance at the device in question explains the problem -- one of the diesel engine tech manuals piled on that side of my desk has slid off its stack and knocked the handset off the cradle. Then I look up at the giant Garfield alarm clock perched on the shelf over my head. One-fifty-three. There was a customer scheduled for one o'clock -- they must be having trouble with the Capabilities briefing.
Launching myself out of my chair, I head for the stairs at my normal fast walk. Moving to a new project a few weeks ago also required a move from my old quarters on the first floor to a different cubicle on the third. Naturally, the main conference room is on the ground floor, so I have to go to the other side of the building and down three levels. Oh, well. At least it's all downhill.
The boss is going to be in a panic when I get there. They only call me when the boss is in a panic. I guess I'm his walking 'winkie', a human security blanket. The briefing setup hasn't been my responsibility for three years, but whenever he has a problem he wants me there. While our Systems Administrator can run rings around me on most computer stuff, I know enough about all the software and equipment used that I can usually get things fixed faster. Jack of all trades, and master of none -- that's me.
I shoot through the conference room without slowing down -- nobody ever introduces me to the customers anyway. It's obvious what the problem is as soon as I see the projection display -- they have a black box where a demonstration movie file should be playing. Tim, the SA, hands the remote mouse to me while Dr. Bill, the boss, glares daggers and hisses through gritted teeth. "Fix the damn thing! I've got a customer out there!" Pleasant and grateful as ever.
Tim turns off the monitor and I bring up Explorer. Yep, just what I thought. They moved the video source file. A click and drag pulls it back to the main C drive directory, and I toss the mouse back to Tim. "You guys have got to stop messing with the folders -- the links get broken every time you move it."
He flushes -- I'm sure it was his helper who moved it anyway, and mutters a quick thanks as he powers the display back up and restarts the presentation. We are rewarded by the thunder of distorted music -- Bill just loves to blast people's eardrums. I check the time display on the corner of the projection room status monitor. One fifty-eight -- a five-minutes turnaround. Not bad from the third floor.
Normally, I would hang around and make sure that everything continues working. These rushed fixes almost always end up with a second call -- Bill doesn't appreciate the value of checking things out when he has a customer is waiting. However, I have a lot to do on my project. They'll call me if they need me again. Heading back to my cube, I decide to be lazy and turn from the stairs to the elevator. For once, the doors open as soon as I punch the button. As I step in, I feel a little flushed, and then slightly queasy. Damn! Hope I am not coming down with the flu bug that's going around. All I've had today is coffee and a bag of fat-free popcorn, so there isn't much to revisit.
I lean against the back of the car as it starts to rise and grab the handrail with both hands as a cold wave of weakness passes through me. Obviously the flu -- moving awfully fast, though. My hands and feet cramp, and that weird chilly shudder runs down my back and causes both legs to shake so bad I nearly fall.
Ding. Passing the second floor, that coldness rushes to my head and the elevator car seems to flicker around me. My gut tenses and I suddenly am very concerned. This doesn't feel like the flu. God, am I having a heart attack? It can't be! I'm too young, and I'm in good health. Just like a thousand other guys who drop dead for no reason.
I shut my eyes, realizing that I am probably overreacting. OK. I'm sick. Food poisoning, maybe. Then my hands slip suddenly can't grip the railing any more, and I sit down hard and painfully. Very painfully. A stabbing sensation at the base of my spine spreads out as a dull ache over my whole body, and my clothes seem to constrict around me.
There have been plenty of times that I have been scared in the past. A few times that I have been really frightened. However, this is the first time I think I have been truly terrified. My head is throbbing, and vision blurs as a hand seems to reach through my flesh and yank my the front of my skull outward. Panicking, I try to get up, but my arms won't bend properly.
Ding. Third floor. The doors slide and a woman I don't recognize starts to walk into the car. Her eyes go wide as she sees me, and she jumps back with an ear-piercing scream. Dimly, I wonder if I am bleeding from the nose or mouth. Is this an embolism? A stroke? She looks as terrified as I am, backing away in obvious horror. What's the matter? Hasn't she seen anyone die before?
"What's going on?" A familiar voice, followed by a familiar face that peers around the door. Vinnie. He'll help me. Call the paramedics, if it isn't too late already. He recoils, looking an awful lot like the woman does. So much for help.
You know, the movies always have these really poignant scenes when someone dies, where they profess love, or make some witty comment. My last intelligible statement is "Oh, shit." Then my throat twists and pulls, and all I can manage is a weird squeal. I convulse again as the doors start to slide shut. Seams pop in my shirt and pants, and my sneakers pull apart. I can't help thinking of an old James Bond movie, where the baddie is force fed a CO2 cartridge and ends up blowing up into a human balloon. Funny how my mind works -- here I am dying in some really weird and horrible manner, and I'm worried about bloating?
The car is going back down. I shudder again, and feel the tattered remains of my pants and shirt pulling apart as I slide heavily on the floor. A specific pain cuts through all the others, and I realize I am suffering from an extreme wedgie. Then my briefs join the rest of my ruptured clothing. Great. Bloated and naked, sprawled across the floor of an elevator. Just the way I always imagined going out. What was that Donald O'Conner sang in Singing in the Rain? Oh, yeah. Dignity. Always Dignity.
Ding. The pain ends suddenly as the doors open on the second floor. Is that a good sign or a bad sign? It's almost a repeat of the woman upstairs, except that Debbie, another long-time friend is staring down at me with a startled expression. Startled is better than terrified, I guess. I feel very strange and confused. There is something wrong with the way I am seeing her. Sorta blurred and distorted. Then I hear the pounding of feet followed by the slam of the stairwell door being thrown open. Vinnie. I recognize his smell. Coming to help at last.
Vinnie comes to an abrupt stop at the door. His mouth falls open and a stunned expression glazes his eyes. Debbie steps closer to peer at me, her expression a mixture of bewilderment and amusement. Nice to know I'm providing entertainment. Then she turns to Vinnie and asks, "OK. I give up. What is a horse doing in the elevator?"
Her words cut through the dull panic. Maybe I'm not dying -- just going absolutely stark raving mad. For my head lifts impossibly far as I try to lift and turn it, and I seem to be seeing almost 360 degrees. One eye is reporting the muted brown panels of the elevator wall, the other is showing the other side of the car and my two friends. Oh, and the gawky, black-furred body of a very large and very young colt.
"Bob Stein, please come to the Virginia Room. Bob Stein, you are needed in the main conference room immediately."
I drop a very long and heavy head on the elevator floor and close my eyes as the announcement is repeated. Let them wait.
The elevator doors try to close again, but this time Vinnie sticks his foot between them and blocks it open. He swallows, wide-eyed and pale. "It's not a horse. I mean, it wasn't just a minute ago. I don't know what the Hell it is."
"Oh, right." Debbie can't see his face, and probably thinks he's pulling some sort of bizarre prank. He's been known to do a few wild ones. So have I, for that matter. "Look, you can't stick a animal in a little space like that. Can't you see he's scared?" She starts to reach in, but Vinnie knocks her back.
"Don't touch it!" He backs away as far as he can without pulling his foot from the door. "You didn't see it before. It was all deformed, like something out of a horror movie." Vinnie flushes when he sees Debbie's expression. "No, really! I'm not kidding!"
While being described as a refugee from a horror picture wouldn't normally make me happy, it slowly dawns on me that I might not be crazy. I lift my head for another look at myself, finding it easier to cope with the strange divided eyesight. While I'm certainly no expert, my size and coloration indicate that I'm probably a Shire colt, perhaps a couple of weeks old.
Maybe this is a dream. A very vivid, detailed dream. With scents, sounds, feelings, even pain. Right. I can hear my heart pounding, feel the carpet pulling at my fur as I shift slightly. My tail hurts where I sat down on it, not bad, just a dull ache that is fading. It moves when I flex my butt muscles, and I can feel the flesh pulling across my lower back. The stink of fear is almost overwhelming, part mine and part Vinnie's. Under that is a harsh chemical smell from the carpet, and a mix of metal, sweat, electrical circuits. Too much to separate.
"What the Hell?" Some other people are starting to gather by the door. "Is this some kind of joke?" A guy from one of the other companies we share the building with frowns. "I'm calling the police!"
It's tempting to just continue lying there and let the dream continue. However, I can't block the elevator like this -- and there's no point in wasting a perfectly good dream. Getting up is awkward, but also educational. I know how to work my legs -- they are long and a bit unsteady, but the mental process of standing seems natural. The growing crowd moves back uncertainly, but Vinnie keeps his foot in the door. I shake myself, ending with a hop-kick that hits the wall of the elevator with a resounding bang. The noise startles me, for the kick hadn't been planned. It just sorta happened.
Remembering the pulling in my throat, I try to talk. A high-pitched whinny emerges. Swallowing, I try again, struggling to make my oversized lips and tongue form human sounds. There is a short-circuit between brain and muscles, for I can't quite comprehend how to work my face that way. I can think of words, I just can't quite remember how to say them.
"Let's get him down to the first floor." Good old Debbie -- ever practical. "If he gets out up here he might hurt himself." She pushes past Vinnie and holds out her hand cautiously. "That's a good boy. Take a sniff."
I find myself actually doing that, snuffling her outstretched palm and pulling at it with my lips. She reaches out with her other hand and starts to rub the underside of my jaw. Her odor makes me hungry. Female, but not right. Her belly is flat, missing the twin projections I am looking for. Mare's teats. Where is my mare? Anxiety flares suddenly, and I feel unsafe. Vinnie steps into the car as the doors slide shut, but presses himself into the corner. I know these two are friends. That helps calm me, even if his fear scent is still strong.
We don't move at first. Debbie twists around and hits a button on the panel. I quiver as the floor lurches under me. It's just the elevator going down, I know that. Yet I am also confused and a little afraid when the standing place isn't steady.
"Whose stuff is that?" Vinnie squats down very carefully and grabs some of my shredded clothing. "It's all torn apart!" Halfway through standing up again, he freezes and stares down at my hind legs. "He's wearing socks."
Ding. The doors open into the lobby, where a crowd of the bored and curious have already gathered. Faces known and strange blur into a wall of noise, stink, and movement that has my ears laid flat and my eyes showing whites.
The female gets a firm grip on my mane and leads my out into a larger space with lots of light. It smells like the elevator, all chemicals stone, and metal, but one wall isn't really there, and I can see the outside through it. There is a word for that. Glass. As I let the dream continue, my mind is melting down. It is an odd sensation, feeling my thoughts simplify, to find myself curious and amazed by walls that aren't quite there. Is this how a colt thinks? How do I know to dream like this?
A new fear joins the confusion and bewilderment that assault me. What if this isn't a dream? I know that it is impossible for a human to transform into an animal, no matter what I have written in stories. There is no real magic, no known science that can alter the structure of existing cells over years, much less a minute or two on the elevator. Yet I also know what I feel. New and different muscles pulling in my chest and rump, the taste of spit in my mouth, skin quivering on my back. I could not be dreaming these, because I have never even imagined them before.
Even backed by the adrenaline rush of sudden realization, I have trouble stopping the downward slide into animal mentality. It's like an ice chute, all slick and hard, with nothing to grab onto. My efforts are not helped by another part of my mind that doesn't understand the human confusion and complications, or the fact that my mental self is trying to grab the walls with hooves.
Hands. Fingernails. Arms. The descent slows as I rebuild myself in my head, gaining legs that will spread apart to serve as brakes. I push out with all my strength, screaming with frustration as bits of my self continue to crumble.
And then I am back in the lobby, surrounded by startled humans. I must have actually squealed, lost in the internal battle. How much of me is left? Debbie is still there, as is Vinnie. We are near the back doors, and I can make out the little man-made lake just beyond. Glass doors. I know what glass is. A shiver of relief runs through me. Dream or not, I can't risk letting myself fade away.
Debbie leads me outside, followed by the crowd. The colt in me wants to yank free, to run across the open field and kick up my heels. I clamp down on it brutally, afraid to enjoy this lest I lose myself completely. The hardest thing right now is trying to accept the situation. I do not believe that I am dreaming, or that everyone around me is sharing some mass hallucination.
When you have examined and discarded all other possibilities, the answer that remains, however improbable, is usually the truth. Sherlock Holmes said something like that once. It was Basil Rathbone, actually, but he was playing Sherlock Holmes in the movie. I wonder what old Basil would say about this. For the answer that remains is that I am a horse.
Having something is not nearly as pleasant as wanting it. Another saying, this one vaguely remembered as a line by Data in the old Star Trek TV series. At this point, I may be inclined to agree. After all the years I have fantasized about turning into some sort of equine, the seeming reality is pretty scary. The weird thing is, I don't know if I'm more frightened that I am somehow imagining all this, or that it is actually happening.
In my stories, the transformed character usually kicks up his heels and revels in the freedom and joy of his new form, treating the loss of his human identity with casual disregard. That's a mistake I won't make again -- I have a death grip on that human identity, and I won't give up any more of it without a fight. Then another cold splash of reality hits me -- I won't be writing stories of any kind. Or drive any of my old cars. Hell, I may not ever see my house, my friends, my family ever again! As far as the world is concerned, I'm an animal that somehow wandered into an office building. Sudden despair almost loosens my hold, and my resolve to fight bestial thought weakens. Why bother?
My ears perk up, and I realize that Vinnie is standing beside me. He has something in his hand. My wallet. I snort and toss my head in sudden joy. He knows! He can tell everyone! However, my friend stumbles back, his eyes frightened.
"No." His voice is a whisper, but I can pick it up. "It can't be." I can see denial building. Why should he believe? I barely believe it myself. Yet I also know that he is my only chance to communicate. Nobody else would even consider the possibility. I have to stop him from rationalizing what he saw away, from seeing me as just an animal.
I pull at the wallet with my lips, then paw the ground. He frowns, and I realize I am acting the way a colt would. The ground. I can write in the dirt! Or can I? Finding an open patch of grass, I try to drag one forehoof to make a line, only to find myself unable to remember what a line is. A mark. No! I can't have forgotten that. My hoof slides slowly, gouging the manicured lawn. It's not enough. A letter. My name. Just three letters. What is the first letter of my name? Bah-bh. Buh. Bu-ah. Bee. A 'b'. Two circle shapes and a straight line. A flash of memory, struggling with a huge pencil to copy what the teacher is drawing on the board. Greenish-white paper with wide, bold lines. The scene is clear, like something from yesterday, not kindergarten. Has the colt brought me back that far? Dragged me down to where my human mind is as childlike as it is?
A five year-old wouldn't wonder about that. But while I have been struggling internally, Vinnie has gained the bemused expression of self-doubt. I can almost see his mind closing out what he saw that first time the elevator doors opened, ignoring the evidence of his eyes for the rationalization of society. I'm losing him, and if that happens, I will lose myself.
I squeal to get his attention, and dig at the ground again. A line. The circle shapes are harder, requiring twists of my whole body. My results could be a capital 'B'. Or random marks. Frustrated, I try again, this time hoping to make an 'o'. It's lopsided, but readable. Finally, a lower-case 'b'. Straight line. One circle. It doesn't look right. Damn! I reversed the position -- At best, the marks spell out 'Bod."
"Oh, shit." Vinnie squats down to stare at the marks. Then he looks at me. "Oh, shit."
I know the feeling.
I guess it's been a half-hour or so since I transformed. The ache in my belly makes it even harder to think, and I feel tired and listless. Grass doesn't satisfy me -- I have torn up the surrounding landscape trying to graze, but I must be young enough that I still need to nurse. Problem is, I'm a foal without a dam. Well, I do have a mother, but she isn't exactly of size or age to breast-feed a Shire colt.
Vinnie has gone back inside the building, but I still have a couple of people with me. Debbie, of course, watching me as she talks to someone on her cell phone. She has always been the maternal type, fussing at me when I went outside without a jacket, or have one of my diet popcorn lunches. I don't think she is completely convinced that this is for real. Even after Vincent showed her my clothes and the crude writing on the ground, she still thought this might be some elaborate joke. Happily, she thought to ask some yes or no questions that I could answer by nodding or shaking my head.
My other watcher is Brian, the kid webmaster for one of the other projects. He was hired right out of high school, and dropped into the same kind of position I was doing for my project. That is a weird feeling, I can tell you. However, despite our age difference, we have become good friends. I've helped him out with some of the web animation stuff, and he's shown me some tricks with HTML and Java. He is also into fantasy and science fiction, which may be why he didn't have that much trouble believing I had somehow turned into a horse.
I wonder how many other people Vinnie has tried to tell. From some of the comments I have overheard, the majority thinks I just wandered into the office park from a local farm or stable. It's not all that farfetched, actually. Langley Air Force Base, just a mile or two away, has a stable. And the area is still pretty rural, so it's not uncommon to see horses wandering some of the larger properties.
No newspaper reporters or TV cameras have descended on me. Neither has the city Animal Control Bureau. I can probably thank Vinnie and Debbie for that. Except for some curious stares from the windows, everyone else seems satisfied to let my two friends take care of things. Including me. Just what are they doing? Not calling my parents, I hope. Actually, I have no idea who to call. Not that I can use a phone, anyway.
God, I'm hungry. It's hard to concentrate on anything but the emptiness of my belly. A frustrated squeal escapes my lips, and Brian reaches out to give my neck a reassuring pat. "It's OK, fella. You're gonna be OK." Fella? I snort and shake my head, and he flushes. "Oh, sorry. It's just hard to remember that you're, well, you."
I guess I can understand that. For a while, I wasn't sure I was still me. The strange sensations, that weird mental falling, and the trouble I have remembering and thinking all combined to make me feel like I was going animal all the way. Now that I've had time to adjust a little, I think I had it all wrong. Or at least, partly wrong.
All of my knowledge and memories are still there. I have to work to find them now, but nothing seems to be lost. In fact, a lot of things are popping up sharp and clear that I thought were long forgotten. Childhood memories, old friends from my Air Force days, even some of the French and Spanish that I took in school. It is a little ironic to find myself able to remember foreign languages now that I have lost the ability to speak.
As best I can figure, the transformation changed the shape of my brain. I know a horse's brain is physically a little smaller, but I don't know if it is divided into lobes like a human's. On the other hand, humans only use a small part of their brain capacity, so storage space shouldn't be an issue.
Maybe it's like my move to the new office cubicle. The drawer layout was different, so I had to go through my papers and books and re-file them. Found a lot of stuff I'd forgotten about, and organized it all with dividers as I set the new place up. This colt's brain is definitely laid out differently, and the stuff from my human life has been sorted and neatly filed. Unfortunately, someone else handled this move and I don't know the filing cabinet layout yet.
Debbie waves to someone. It's a car pulling into the parking lot. Who drives an XJ-6 Jaguar? Her husband. Harold. Who is a Captain in the Air Force. Commanding a maintenance squadron. For flightline support equipment.
I blink, surprised at how much I remember from scraps of past conversations, and also by the way I think of it. Logical links following a straight line. Is this how a horse thinks? Or just the way my transformed mind works? No way to tell, really.
Harold pulls to a stop and gets out, giving me an odd look. He reaches back into the car and pulls out a couple of bags as Debbie walks towards him. "I got everything you asked for except for the lime water. Nobody knew what I was talking about." He hands one of the bags over to her. "I washed the bottles out, but didn't have time to sterilize them."
"That's fine." Debbie pulls a pitcher and some glass baby bottles out of the bag and sets them on the ground. "I don't think mare's teat's are normally sterilized, anyway."
My ears perk up. Mare's teats? Brian grabs at me as I prance towards Debbie, and I force myself to stop. Hunger flares suddenly, and I squeal in anticipation.
Debbie looks at me as she pulls two half-gallons of milk from the second bag. "Give me a minute, Bob. I have to mix this up and dilute it." She hands the pitcher to Brian. "Run inside and fill this halfway with warm water." As he takes off towards the building, she looks back at me. "I called a friend who has horses. There's some sort of mare's milk substitute available, but she gave me a formula from her vet for now. Regular whole milk, with powdered dextrose and water added to it. It's safe, and it's pretty obvious you are hungry." She pauses a moment. "I asked her to bring over a horse trailer. We need to get you out of here, and I don't think you'll fit in a car. Hope you don't mind."
Her husband looks at her oddly. "Um, Deb? I left a meeting with two bird Colonels because you said it was an emergency -- then you call and tell me to pick up baby bottles and milk. Now you're talking to a horse. If it's not too much to ask, what the Hell is going on?"
She points at me. "That's Bob."
"So I gather." Harold scowls. "Who does he belong to?"
"You don't understand." Debbie chews her lower lip a moment and then sighs. "That's Bob Stein. You know? The guy with all the cars?"
I see his eyes flicker around, looking for the human me somewhere. Then he focuses back on me and shakes his head. "What? Bob bought a horse? Why did he bring it to the office?"
"No. The horse is Bob."
There is a long pause as Harold looks from me to Debbie, and back again. His eyes narrow. "OK, I give up. What's the joke?"
She shrugs. "No joke. It sounds crazy, I know. But Bob turned into a horse about an hour ago. It happened on the elevator."
"Uh-huh" He takes a step back and shakes his head. "I gotta get back to the base. Look, Deb -- I know you love animals and all, but somebody else's hungry pet isn't what I consider an emergency. I mean, anybody could have gone to the grocery store."
"This isn't just a pet." Debbie bristles slightly, and then slumps. "Oh, never mind. I'll explain later, if I still have to. I promise that this really is an emergency though. Just trust me for now."
"OK." Harold leans over and pecks her on the cheek. Then he starts back towards the idling Jaguar.
Before he reaches it, Brian bursts out of the front doors and runs towards us, sloshing water from the pitcher all the way. "It's happened other places!"
"What has?" Debbie takes the pitcher, looking a little annoyed at how little water remains.
"Changes! People turning into stuff. And not just animals!"
What? I suddenly find something more interesting than the potential meal.
Brian stops to catch his breath, flushed with excitement. "It's on the TV in the break room. So far, the news programs are treating it like a hoax, but they have supposedly verified reports of a guy turning into a centaur, a woman turning into a werewolf, and at least two others who have turned into normal-looking animals. And it all happened at two o'clock."
People are starting to stream out the doors. Guess news is spreading. I can make out a blur of faces staring down through the office windows again -- so much for anonymity. Somebody is bound to be calling the media. I push that nightmare out of my mind for now, more interested in the fact that I am not alone. A centaur? Why didn't I turn into one of those? Or at least a humanoid horse. Why a normal animal?
"What the Hell is going on?" Harold comes back over, looking bewildered. "People are turning into animals? That's crazy!" He stops suddenly and gives me a wide-eyed stare. "Wait a minute -- you're telling me that's Bob?" He blinks, and then grabs for Debbie. "Get away from him! What if he's contagious?"
She twists away from him. "Contagious? Don't be ridiculous! This isn't the flu, or some sort of cold. If he was contagious, half the office would be on all fours right now."
"Dammit, Debbie!" He isn't giving up. "You have two children at home who need a mother, not a mare. Are you willing to risk all our lives on something we can't even guess at yet?"
Ouch. A flicker of concern passes her face, and then she sighs. "If we follow that line of reasoning, then I can't go home. And neither can you. We've both been exposed to him." She chews her bottom lip for a moment. "I'm sorry. I guess I really didn't think this through. I mean, I thought he was just a baby horse at first, and after I found out it was Bob, well..." Her voice trails off, and I can see her eyes start to water. "God, honey. What are we going to do? Maybe I really can't go home!"
I get a sick feeling as the pain in her voice hits me. What if I am contagious? I have no idea what cause the transformation. Magic? Some alien space ray? The situation is hard to take seriously. I'm a horse! Some small part of my mind finds the idea of Debbie turning into a mare appealing -- the hungry colt, no doubt. I crush the thought viciously as I look at her.
"So far, the reports are just individuals. And those that have been reported so far all changed at exactly two o'clock, so there shouldn't be any problem for us." Brian frowns a little bit and then goes over to Debbie. "If you will mix up the formula for me, I'll feed him until your friend gets here with the trailer. I'm sure it's safe, but just in case, I don't have a family to take care of."
Debbie gives me a guilty look, and I try to nudge her hand to let her know I understand. She snatches it away and backs up, then looks horrified. "Oh, God! Bob! I'm sorry. I didn't mean..." Tears start to run down her cheeks, and then she spins and runs back to the building.
I get a cold feeling in my gut. If someone as levelheaded and caring as Debbie is afraid of me, I am in for a really bad time. That feeling is amplified when I see the anger and fear in Harold's glare. He stalks back to the Jaguar, slams the door, and peels off. The stink of burning rubber makes me sneeze.
Brian looks at the pitcher and the other ingredients and sighs. "I'm gonna try mixing this stuff about two-thirds milk to water. It may not be exactly right, but you can try it." He pours the milk into the pitcher and sloshes it around before pouring some into one of the bottles. I have to really work not to lunge for the nipple when he offers it, fighting to control the foal's instincts as much as I can. However, once my lips close on the rubber tip, nursing becomes automatic.
I am on the second bottle when the first police car arrives, followed by a faded green older Ford pickup towing a white double-stall horse trailer. The officer gets out looking a bit puzzled. He's young, maybe early twenties. "Uh, I got a call from the Precinct Station about a... dangerous animal?" Obviously he either didn't get the whole story, or doesn't believe it. "Is this little guy causing problems?"
"I'll take care of it, officer." A wild-haired woman in coveralls and boots is striding up from the truck. "It's amazing how far a colt can stray when someone leaves the gate open." She crouches down next to me as I finish off the second bottle and whispers in my ear. "Look, I don't know what the Hell is going on, but it's all over TV. Get on the trailer now. We gotta get you out of here fast."
I'm confused only a moment before realization hits. If Debbie is frightened of me, there will be a thousand others who figure I am a threat to life. Including people in Government. Brian helps by started to lead me towards the trailer using the bottle, and my improved hearing can already pick up sirens over the dull roar of traffic from the interstate. The woman already has the tailgate down, and throws it back up the moment I climb inside. Scents of horse, hay and leather fills my nostrils, mixed with fresh paint and the sawdust smell of wood.
"Lady, wait a minute." The officer may be getting suspicious, or he's unwilling to make a decision with the approaching sirens now audible to everyone. "You're gonna have to answer a few questions."
I hear her slam the door and start the engine. "Officer, you have no right to detain me unless I have broken some law. Those sirens are going to terrify a very valuable colt. Unless you want to be responsible for a multi-million dollar lawsuit, I suggest you let me get him home." After a moment, the truck surges forward. I can only assume that the young policeman has waved her on.
The trailer leans hard right, throwing me against the wall as the woman speeds through the parking lot. This is obviously Debbie's friend. How much does she know? Enough to realize that the Government is going to be after me. The trailer bounces over the speed bump at the entrance, and then I slam against the opposite wall as she turns right onto the office park road. I can hear police or fire cars shooting past in the opposite direction -- they haven't made the connection between a 'dangerous animal' and a horse trailer.
I brace myself as best I can for the turn out of the office park, spreading my legs out awkwardly. No matter which direction she turns, I should be able to keep from hitting the walls again. Except that I get launched forward into the front as she slams on brakes, and do half a forward roll before hitting the front of the trailer with a resounding thud. Stunned, I haven't even started to untangle myself before a deep voice booms from some sort of PA system.
"This is the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Get out of the truck with your hands up."
I stay where I am, afraid to move or even make a sound. My rescuer has no such reluctance.
"You unbelievable idiot!" I can hear her screaming through the walls of the trailer. "How dare you pull a stupid stunt like that? I have a foal in this trailer -- if he's been hurt because of your incompetence, I'll make sure you have your God-damned badge stripped from you permanently!"
Other cars are screeching to a halt around us, doors being opened and slammed shut. The conversations are muffled and confused, but after a minute, the trailer ramp is lowered. I haven't moved yet, even though the pain of hitting the wall is already fading. Better to look as unthreatening as possible, assuming a foal can look threatening.
Happily, it is the woman who is checking on me, not one of the police officers or men in suits behind her that I assume are FBI.
She pales when she sees me still sprawled on my back. "Oh, God! Are you OK, fella?" Jumping into the trailer, she helps me stand, stroking my neck and sides soothingly. "Can you stand? Come on, boy. That's right. Take it slow and easy." She isn't really talking to me -- she's responding as if I was a normal animal, using the tone of her voice to calm me. I am a little bothered to realize that it is working. Even so, I tremble as she checks me over, carefully feeling my legs and back. It is hard to tell if the fear is mine or the colt's.
"He seems OK. Thank God for that." She turns to look at the men in suits who are still standing outside the trailer. "Now, what the Hell is this all about? If I didn't have electric brakes on the trailer, I'd have plowed right through that Government-Issue sedan of yours when you came bouncing over the divider."
"I'm sorry about that, Ma'm." One of the suits is talking. I can't make out much detail, but he sounds older. "This is a matter of National Security." He even capitalized the words with his voice. "We're trying to avoid a panic here."
The lady snorts. "Oh, right. Just exactly who does a newborn foal represent a threat to? Do you think he's gonna try to assassinate the President? Or build an atomic bomb from straw and clover?" She pauses and looks past the police and agents. "And as far as avoiding a panic, you're doing a real great job. I almost had him out of here with no one the wiser. Now you are going to have major media circus on your hands."