by Charles M. Bonanno
© Charles M. Bonanno -- all rights reserved
"... that's... that's as far as I wrote." A weary voice exclaimed aloud into the surrounding darkness.
With a crackling sound a match flared to life and a cigarette began to glow. As a puff of smoke rose to the ceiling in the momentary flash of brilliance, two muffled voices broke the silence.
"Thanks for the light, Oscar."
"My pleasure, Frank."
"Are you sure he can't see us?"
"I checked it myself. The spotlight won't let him see this far back. Just don't step over the rope I stretched around the chair."
"Yes, I can feel it now. Excellent work, Oscar. Is everyone here yet?"
"Pretty much, the last few should be here soon."
"That's fine. But it's time to resume your position."
Several seconds later the first voice began to speak in a much louder tone.
"Very good. Please read it again."
Too exhausted to feel fear anymore, a muzzled face arose from the crumpled pages grasped within short fingered paws and began to yell.
"How many damned times are you going to make me read this thing? I've been here all night!"
"I'm sorry, Mr. Phillips. But many of my colleagues had to travel great distances to attend this little 'reading'. It'd be a shame if they went through all that trouble for nothing. Besides, I thought you'd enjoy being invited to display your work before a live audience."
"Invited?!" Mr. Phillips, a short statured, mid degree caninemorph Scab replied in a rough, near barking voice. "Your goon broke down my door, hauled me out of bed, and dragged me down here blind-folded. How dare to call this 'invited'?! Who the fuck do you think you are?!"
"Please start reading, Mr. Phillips." the computer generated voice commanded as it completely ignored the preceding accusations.
"And I wouldn't call Oscar a 'goon' if I were you... it wouldn't be prudent."
"Go screw yourself!" the caninemorph replied as he planted both clawed paws on the dusty concrete floor and began to arise from a wooden school chair.
"Oscar, if you would..."
A leather glove reached into the dim light surrounding the chair and fell heavily onto the Scab's shoulder. With a single loud yelp of canine pain, he droped back into the chair as his tail was folded painfully against the backrest.
The sound had barely left his muzzled lips as a metallic click echoed around a huge darkened space and a cold gun barrel was shoved behind one of his large, floppy ears.
"Start reading." the same voice ordered again.
"Where's Mona, you bastards! If you did anything to her I'll..."
"She's none of your concern anymore, Mr. Phillips. If you had any true feelings for her, perhaps, just perhaps, you wouldn't have convinced a human norm to steal for you."
"You have no right to do this! Those government records belong to the public! You can't protect that monster forever! The truth will come out eventually!"
"But I didn't even finish it! There's still a whole bunch of parts missing!"
"I kinda like it the way it is. A little over dramatic in places, but who am I to judge? Start reading."
The gun barrel was pushed into the back of the fur-covered skull yet again. "Okay... okay! I don't care about me. Just promise me that you won't hurt her!"
"Read, Mr. Phillips."
With a voice empty of all hope the pages were turned and the exhausted voice began to fill the pitch black room once again.
The Angel of Death
It can feel no pity or remorse.
It is incapable of cruelty or kindness.
Yet everything that lives will be judged by the dispassionate forces and processes referred to as Nature. Its final verdict can never be appealed or overruled.
Mercy is never granted.
In the court of life, survival of the fittest is the only law. A law that awards the victor the prize of continued existence while condemning the vanquished to eternal extinction.
Ultimately, no species or individual can expect exemption or demand favoritism.
Nonetheless, humanity... the self appointed epitome of creation, rarely attempts to heed this simple truth. Blinded by pride, mankind reached out to the heavens to bring yet another planet within its grasp.
Hidden for countless eons, yet another challenger laid dormant on that distant red orb. Invisible... silent... eternally patient... it waited for the careless touch that would bring it forth.
The Martian Flu Virus was nothing like the slavering alien creatures of popular myth. It had neither the technology nor the physical might to overwhelm its rivals for dominance. Infinitesimally small, it could only seek within each new victim the means for total victory.
As with other diseases that have plagued humanity since time immemorial, it leapt from host to host destroying those that were most vulnerable. Without warning, its bloody footprints circled the globe.
No hiding place offered sanctuary and flight was futile. Pleas for deliverance went unanswered, as both the dying and their families perished within each other's arms.
As days turned into weeks, and then into months, the toll of dead and dying grew. Despair took hold as the world was squeezed within Death's bony grip.
And then it stopped.
With a collective sigh of relief the living rejoiced. Grateful prayers for being spared rose to the heavens as the mountains of dead were laid to rest, the bereaved and distraught comforted, and plans for the rebuilding to the cities drawn.
Once again humanity had triumphed. Forevermore would mankind remain the master of its own destiny.
They were wrong.
The war had just begun. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse still rode across the land and the rider on the pale horse lead the way.
Slowly at first... very slowly... the changes began. Panic grew ever higher as whispered third-hand rumors became a terrifying new reality. And prayers for salvation were soon by pleas for death as the laws of physics and genetics unravelled.
Mankind's most cherished assertions, the very core of its presumptuous claims of mental and physical superiority, embarked on an impossible voyage of re-discovery.
And legions of new victims begin to envy the dead.
The inviolable line that separated that which was human from that which was not was erased forever. The very term 'human' became a debatable subject, as physical forms flowed like water and psyches shattered under the attack of primeval instincts.
Randomly... almost capriciously... ancient DNA codes, lost to time, once again asserted themselves. With varying degrees of completion, those who survived the changes became one with their genetic heritage.
The entire planetary history of evolution soon began to reflect itself within a subset of the human population. A small percentage, roughly six percent world-wide, fell off the ladder of humanity's evolutionary climb, to land... somewhere else.
The war continues. The years and decades roll on relentlessly.
Mankind's oldest enemies have grown bold in these tumultuous future times. Their ancient names are known by all... prejudice, bigotry, and mindless hatred.
New victims, heroes, and villains alike arise to replace the fallen. Mankind, despite all its faults, marched valiantly forth into an uncertain future.
And the walking wounded fill the streets.
Yet, that is the future and this is the present. Year one of the plague has just ended. The smoke of countless pyres still darken the skies, as the stink of burning flesh fills the air. The city streets echo not with laughter, but with the screams of the dying or worse.
It is a time of fear and horror. And brutality has a new name.
"Good morning, Doctor Measures!" a frightened orderly exclaimed, almost hopping in place as the basement elevator doors slid open.
"Are you really that happy to see me? Is it time already for another bit of assertiveness training... hummm?" Is the only reply he receives.
Embarrassed, the low degree caninemorph orderly grabbed his wagging tail and stuffed it under his jacket. A muzzled face turned down before growling.
"Yes, sir! Err...no, sir! I'm okay! I'm okay! It's just that the hospital administrator told me to fetch... err, to meet you and to tell you that he's waiting for you in his office." The orderly replied in a rush of words as he obviously tries to control his jerky body movements.
"Let him wait. It's time for me to do my rounds before the first shift starts up. Tell Dr. Roberts I'll be there when I'm done."
The cringing caninemorph lept aside as the immense lab coated figure strode past with two black garbed security men trailing in his wake.
Adversity is well known for trying a man's soul, and in some cases, extinguishing it utterly. There is a limit to how much pain and suffering... how much darkness... any individual can witness. This man has long exceeded that limit.
When hope is abandoned, when love is lost, sometimes only duty remains. But as his world turned to dust and ashes around him, duty became this healer's only shield against a growing insanity.
That shield is failing.
Silently the trio walked down a long concrete corridor. The only sound, their footsteps, echoed off the bare, unpainted walls. As they reached a set of large steel doors the two security men sprang forward.
With practiced ease, a pair of magnetic cards were swiped through separate electronic readers as their fingers danced over wall-mounted keypads. The flashing red light above their heads turned green as the hum of high-voltage electricity faded into silence and the doors opened. With scarcely a glance at the warning sign welded to the rusty metal plates they passed through.
Mercy Medical General Hospital Extreme Morphic Containment Unit Psychiatric Ward Hazard Level ALPHA
The hospital ward they entered was nothing like those found far above. Here light and cleanliness was never a priority. What few lights still burned did so for safety reasons only. And the shadows they cast did little to hide the dirt and filth.
Multi-colored wires and broken pipes dangled far overhead in the darkness; the smoke detectors and water sprinklers of the past were long gone. Only the steady gaze of surveillance cameras and remote-control anti-personnel chemical sprayers remained to greet the rare visitor.
The smothering silence at this early hour was unbroken by words of comfort or hope. The white garbed staff from far above, rarely ventured to these depths to utter them.
In this subterranean world, the only sound is the footsteps of grim- faced and frightened men. Men who's rigid pace, barely concealed a nearly palpable terror, as they hugged their automatic weapons for what little comfort they could provide.
For this is a place more of judgment than of medicine. Here pain is more common than relief and despair almost always triumphs over hope. A place that they themselves could one day inhabit.
The final stop on the road to oblivion.
A home for the damned.
[a burst of static]
[electronic hum of poorly adjusted PA system]
"Yes, what is it?" The Doctor replied while looking upwards at the nearest video camera. "Sergeant Donner isn't it?"
"No, sir. I'm corporal Diaz, US Army reserves. Sergeant Donner went fuzzy last watch, I'm his replacement."
"Where is he now, corporal?"
"He's upstairs in the medium security evaluation ward, sir."
"Did you witness the event? So what does he look like, corporal?"
"I was outside walking sentry duty when it happened, sir. Private Clark saw him go ape-shit down in the mess hall around 0200 hours."
[sounds of turning pages]
"Clark said, quote 'This huge friggin' tail tore out of his butt and he started growing something like scales all over!' unquote."
"Sir, you wouldn't believe the gouges that the claws on his feet made in the linoleum tiles down there! Scuttlebutt says that he's still changing into something called a 'pangolin'... whatever the heck 'that' is."
"Anything else, corporal?"
"Yes, sir. Just two things. We've got three low-degree fuzzies upstairs doing jack. The new hospital regs say they can't work around the normal patients and since that rat-thing got loose and bit private Vasquez... Well it's like this sir."
"The other guys don't want to go anywhere near your 'patients' unless they have to. Can I commandeer them for cleanup duty down here?"
"What does Captain Ramsey say?"
"He's still out of contact, sir."
"But he left yesterday morning, corporal."
"Yes, sir. But the food riot's still going strong downtown and he was ordered to take most of the off-watch with him. The local cops simply couldn't handle it alone and the nearest guard unit is protecting the food warehouses next to the rail station. I've been trying to contact HQ upstate, but so far nothing but static."
"Sir...we're 'really' shorthanded down here."
"Be quiet... I'm thinking."
"Okay, bring them down. But they're to have no weapons stronger than a hand-held electric prod and two hour shifts, max. Got that? Two hours. We still don't know how much stress the low-degrees can tolerate. The last thing we need is one of them going feral down here."
"Thank you, sir!"
"You said there were two things?"
"Sorry, sir! I forgot. There was a high priority code alpha admission last night. It's a bad one. Mid-degree canine type, bipedal, possible variable-morphic... total nut case."
[sounds of turning pages]
"One, two, three... yup, three dead inside and four, badly injured arresting Officers. Man... yuck! These photo's are disgusting! He sure did a real Freddy Kruger number inside that house!"
"So what's he doing here? The roundup crews usually blast them to pieces when it's that bad. 'That' type rarely comes quietly."
"Don't know, sir. They just dropped him and the paperwork off without saying a word. He's locked up in cell twenty two and tranquilized to the gills. I've never seen anything still breathing with that many tranc darts sticking in it. Also, Dr. Roberts wants to see you in his office about him, ASAP."
"Fine... I already got that message. Call upstairs and tell him I'll be there in ten minutes. And let me know as soon as Captain Ramsey returns. That'll be all."
"Of course, sir! Just call if you need anything."
[Loud 'snap' as PA system is turned off]
"DAMN IT! This crap just gets better and better!"
The two security men turn and ask in unison, "Sir?"
"Never mind. Lets finish this." The Doctor ordered in an irritated voice. "I'll just check in with the night-watch and then we'll go back upstairs."
Ignoring the security men's questioning stares, Doctor Measures walked rapidly around a corner and out of sight. Each security man stared at his retreating back before hastening to catch up. It's debatable who was protecting whom in this unpleasant place.
They closed the gap just as the Doctor started banging a fist onto the armored nurses station bullet-proof glass window.
A young male nurse appeared from an adjoining room and raced up to the window. His jacket was covered with food crumbs which he tried, and failed, to brush off before the Doctor noticed them.
"Where the hell were you, Terrson?"
"Yes, you. Why did you abandon your station without calling down for a replacement?"
"Well, sir. I... I just needed..." he started to reply but was cut short
by the Doctor's command.
"Terrson, get out here."
"Are you deaf? I said 'get out here'."
With a loud buzz, a metal door unlocked and the trembling nurse exited the armored room. The senior member of the black uniformed security men brushed past and started to scan the closed circuit TV monitors.
Casually, the Doctor walked towards the nurse and draped an arm over the smaller mans shoulders. Using a tone of voice usually reserved for very young children (and the mentally challenged) the Doctor started to whisper into Terrson's ear.
"Mr. Terrson, do you like working here?"
"Yes, sir! Very... very much, sir! It's much... much safer living and working on hospital grounds than in the city." he replied in a halting and equally low voice.
"How long have you worked down here?" The Doctor inquired as he walked towards the nearest wall, dragging the smaller man along with him.
"For three months, sir."
"That long... hmmmm? So it's fair to assume you've seen this before?" He inquired again as he pointed towards a framed sign nailed high on the wall.
"Ah... yes, sir." the man replied in a barely audible voice.
"And that one?... and that one?... and that one?..." the Doctor repeated himself as he spun the man around while pointing at the other walls.
"Err... yes, sir."
"Would you be so kind as to read the first line... Mr. Terrson?"
A suddenly dry throat barely allowed the terrified man to comply in a low and rasping voice.
"Ah... Ah... All clothing and food of animal origin forbidden on this ward by order of..." the voice fades into silence.
"Yes, Mr. Terrson. Forbidden by me."
The young man grew pale as the Doctor lifted the heavy arm from his shoulder and turned to face him directly.
"Now why would we have rules like that down here?"
"I asked you a question, Mr. Terrson."
[nearly inaudible mumbling]
"Speak up. I'm sure Officer Towers didn't hear you way over there.", Doctor Measures replies pointing at the young security guard standing at parade rest by the open door.
"Because... because some of the patients get upset when they see or smell anything dead that resembles their morph type, sir."
"I like that word 'upset,' Mr. Terrson. But let me expand your vocabulary just a little bit. Yes, some of them do get upset ... don't they? They also become enraged, homicidally violent, savage, vicious ..."
"Yes, what is it Officer Towers?", the Doctor asked in an irritated tone as he was interrupted in mid-sentence.
"Officer Martinez is calling for you, sir. He's found something on one of the cell monitors that you'll want to see."
"Let me guess... that wouldn't be holding cell thirty six by any chance?"
"Yes, sir. That's the one. It's right over there." he responded, knoding his head at an armored door about ten feet away.
Turning around he came practically nose to nose with the sweating nurse. "Mr. Terrson, that wouldn't have been a ham sandwich that you were eating when I arrived? Wait... wait... ah, yes! Don't bother, I thought I smelt it on your breath before."
He turned away abruptly and started walking towards the open door.
"Well, aren't you coming? Don't you wish to see the results of your little repast?"
Within moments they were all standing within the nurse's station, a single black and white surveillance monitor was the sole focus of their attention.
"Damn, look at him go!", Officer Martinez called out, suddenly breaking the silence.
"Man... oh man... is he pissed!", the other Officer replied, following his exclamation with a loud whistle.
On screen a huge, vaguely man-shaped razor-back boar was doing its best to destroy everything within the cell.
"Yo, Martinez! Did you see that?! He just ripped that metal commode right out of the friggin' concrete floor!"
"Shit, Towers! Look at that! Now he's stomping it flat under his hooves! Damn, a six ton truck couldn't bend that metal crapper!"
"Hey, Doc! What's he down here for?" Officer Towers asked without taking his eyes off the screen.
Doctor Measures ignored the monitor and stared at the horrified nurse and replied, "Murder... three counts, aggravated assault... five counts, numerous charges of destruction of property and indecent acts with farm animals and..."
"What?... how?... why did he?..." Terrson stuttered uncontrollably as the Doctor listed the charges against the pigmorph from memory.
"That creature used to be your typical ninety nine pound weakling, Mr. Terrson. An on-line computer service tech if I remember correctly."
"Two weeks ago Mr. Martin woke up looking like Porky Pig from Hell... seven feet tall and four hundred pounds of rampaging bacon. In the space of twelve hours he located by smell, three butcher shops which he immediately proceeded to destroy. He also gored two butchers and chased a hot dog vendor until the man died of a heart attack."
The Doctor pointed at the six inch tusks clearly visible as the pigmorph used them to rip a mattress to shreds.
"Finally, he disappeared into the farm country up north before the national guard troops could catch him. He started raiding the nearest farms at night for food... among other things. That is, he did until an angry farmer dumped three bottles a valium into a swill trough and discovered him the next morning asleep ... how shall I say this?... while 'making bacon' with his prize pig Lullubelle."
"Luckily for Mr. Martin the county sheriff got there before the local farmers could get organized enough to engage in a little bit of impromptu non-elective surgery."
"Sheriff Masterson commandeered a pickup truck and literally dumped him outside the hospital last week. Needless to say, all the pig farmers in the area are demanding DNA screening of their livestock."
Doctor Measures gave a low chuckle that raised goose bumps among all who heard it.
"It's a pity, really.", he said in a matter-of-fact tone, "I've been working on him for the last couple of days. I'd even gotten so far as to get him to wear some clothing and to speak a few words."
"Oh, well. Thanks to Nurse Terrson here I'll just have to start all over again."
Terrson lowered his head and stared at the floor as his name is mentioned.
"Ah, sir!" Officer Towers called out in a worried tone of voice.
"Yes, what is it?" the Doctor asked as he turned away from staring at the nurse and returned to watching the monitor.
"He's finished destroying everything in there, sir! Now he's moving towards the door!"
No sooner had the words left the guard's lips, then the door started to rattle in its frame, as larger and still larger dents began to mar its formerly smooth exterior surface.
"Increase the standing charge to level two, Officer Towers." the Doctor commanded.
Leaning over the control board the security man spoke into a microphone, "Officer Richard Towers... control recognition code 5645, arm security lock down, cell number thirty six, level two."
"Security lock down on cell number thirty six armed," The computer controlled console replied with a sensuous female voice. "Please enter activation command to initiate."
"Is 'this' your work too, Mr. Terrson?" the Doctor asked as he pointed towards the computer console.
With an embarrassed, "Yes, sir. I thought the Marilyn Monroe voice was funnier." he replied as he dropped his gaze still lower and stared woodenly at the floor.
With a low sigh Doctor Measures turned and nodded his head at Officer Towers.
"Activation code Live Wire." the security man said loudly into the microphone.
"Warning!... warning!... warning!" a recorded message began to sound over the PA system.
"All personnel stand back from cell door number... three six. I repeat, all personnel stand back from cell door number... three six. Potentially lethal charge to commence in three seconds! Three... two... one..."
<Loud electronic chime>
The pounding on the door ceased as the pigmorph was flung violently backwards by the increased electrical charge flowing through the metal door. The silence was short lived as the pig morph rebounded off the floor and renewed its attack on the damaged door.
"Sir! He's ignoring the juice! The door's beginning to fail!" Officer Martinez called out as he replaced a phone back into its cradle.
"Call security, Officer Martinez."
"I already did, sir. But it'll be at least ten minutes before the containment squad can get down here with their tranc guns!"
"We don't have ten minutes. He'll kill us all if he gets out unrestrained." the Doctor replied in his characteristic monotone voice.
"Officer Towers, please go to level three." he ordered while activating the intercom system within the cell.
As the pigmorph was thrown back yet again by an even stronger charge, the Doctor's voice began to echo within the cell.
"Mr. Martin! Stop! Calm down before you hurt yourself! It was an accident! It won't happen again, you have my word!"
Sir! He's not stopping! The top hinge just broke!" Officer Towers yelled out.
"Move aside, Officer Towers." the Doctor commanded as he leaned over the console and began to speak.
"Computer, activate containment protocol, Thomas Edison. Arming code... extreme prejudice."
"Acknowledged." the computer replied in a breathless sensuous female voice more suitable to the silver screen than to the actions that were soon to follow, "Manual activation key required. System armed." the machine replied.
With a steady hand the Doctor opened a plastic covered slot and inserted a well worn key. Looking up at the monitor he spoke once more into the computerized console.
"MR. MARTIN! STOP! THIS IS YOUR LAST WARNING!"
"Sir! The bottom hinge is bending!" Officer Towers screamed, pointing towards the door.
Reaching out, the Doctor grabbed the nurse by the collar. Lifting him off the floor he spun him around to face the monitor. Grabbing the stunned man's right hand he forced it atop the key as he whispered into his ear.
"Remember this day, Mr. Terrson. Don't you ever forget that 'you' brought this life to an end."
With brutal force the Doctor squeezed the man's hand as he turned the key. The television monitor flared white as electricity arced between the floor and the damaged door with sunlight brilliance. With a single animal grunt of pain the massive form collapsed and began to spastically jerk and roll as the current continued to flow.
It is only after the body begins to smoke that Doctor Measures relaxed his white knuckled grip and returned the key to the off position. Falling to his knees the nurse covered his eyes and began to moan, the image of the burning body indelibly etched into his mind.
"Yes, Officer Towers?" as Doctor turns his back on the sobbing man and looked towards the Officer with his usual impassive features.
"The containment squad is still on its way, sir."
With a small dismissive gesture the Doctor shrugged his shoulders and said, "Tell them to stand down.... the show is all over."
"What about the body, sir? Should I arrange the usual pickup by the incinerator crew?"
With a slight frown the Doctor turned around and began to silently observe the sobbing young man; the look on his face slowly turning into a tight lipped smile as he came to a decision.
"I don't think that'll be necessary," he replied as he reached down and tapped the nurse on the shoulder.
"Mr. Terrson? A moment of your time please." he requested in a low voice as he beckoned the young man to rise with a wave of his hand. Straining to maintain his composure, Terrson wiped the tears from his face and climbed back to his feet.
"Yes, Doctor Measures... I'm sorry. I'll just go pack my things and leave the hospital."
"And why would you do that?" Doctor Measures asks.
"I'm fired, aren't I? I'll have to leave and take my chances back in the city, right?"
"Fired? By no means, Mr. Terrson. In fact, I've been looking for someone like you for a long time."
"Me?!" he replied, totally confused with his sudden change of fortune.
"Yes, Mr. Terrson. I've been looking for someone of your caliber to aid me in my work."
With a single nod of his head he gestured for the senior security guard to approach.
Turning away momentarily, he conversed quietly for a few seconds with the guard. Only the occasional, 'Yes, sir! I understand, sir!' phrase was audible as the guard looked behind the Doctor to stare appraisingly at the nurse.
"With a final 'I'll get right on it.' Officer Martinez walked around the Doctor and came to a halt behind Mr. Terrson.
"Mr. Terrson, you will please follow Officer Martinez. He will brief you on your new duties, I'm late for an important meeting but I'm sure I can count on you in the future."
"Yes, sir! Anything, sir! I'm sorry for what happened, I won't let you down again!" the man replied in a rush of words that were barely comprehensible.
"I'm sure you won't, Mr. Terrson."
With a shooing gesture Doctor Measures motioned for the younger guard to precede him down the corridor.
"Lets go, Mack!" the other guard ordered as the nurse remained frozen in place watching the two men disappear down the long dark corridor.
"Where... where we going?"
"You heard the Doc. You've got new duties to perform if you want to stay here. You should be proud, not many people get serve the cause."
"Of course," the man replied with the expressionless eyes and tone of voice more suitable to a professional killer than a typical security guard, "you just volunteered to help save humanity."
Placing a heavy hand on his shoulder the guard started to guide the nurse towards the damaged cell door. Stopping at a wall mounted control panel the security guard attempted to unlock the door.
"Damn it! The friggin' thing is jammed in the frame!" he exclaimed while kicking the door in anger. "You stay here while I go look for some tools."
Left alone, the nurse tried to breath through his mouth as the scent of fresh, roasted pork leaked past the broken door seals.
After a seeming eternity, that was in reality just a few minutes, Officer Martinez returned pushing a large wheeled trash bin. Removing a crowbar he forced the door open and flooded the corridor with a stench of burnt flesh many times stronger than before.
"Okay, buddy. Go on in!" he ordered the nurse who was obviously trying his best not to regurgitate the sandwich he'd just eaten.
"Me? You want me to go in there?!" Terrson replied unable to believe what he'd just heard.
"That's right. The Doc wants you to personally deliver this one to the incinerator out back. That is, it's only right, as you were responsible for his death after all. Like they say, buddy, you bake-em you bag-em."
"But... how?" Terrson asked, looking at the enormous prone body lying on the floor. He's four times my size! I can't possibly pick him up!"
Without a word the guard reached into his belt and extracted a large combat knife which he dropped atop the body.
Terrson picked it up by the blade and stared back at the guard with a baffled look painted across his face. With a look of exasperation, the guard pointed at the smoking body and then to the large trash bins on the cart behind him.
As the reality of his situation began to sink in, Terrson's hands began to tremble and the knife dropped to the floor.
Ashen faced, he reached down with shaking fingers to retrieve the knife once again. Before he can grasp the handle however, yet another metallic object falls atop the bristle covered chest and bounced onto the floor.
"The Doc said 'that' is for you too." The guard stated, breaking this silence.
"But that's a master key!" the nurse exclaimed looking down as the key spun to a stop near the body, "No one but Doctor Measures and hospital director have those keys."
"You heard the Doc... he's a busy man. And he was impressed by your devotion to duty today, Mr. Terrson. In fact, he should be calling down here fairly often for you to turn that key."
"But I can't... how can you expect me to...?"
"It's easy. You'll get the hang of it after a while." The guard replied in a matter of fact tone. "And later this morning we'll be fitting you for one of these uniforms," he continues as he pointed to the black uniform that he himself wore.
"Welcome to the security services, 'Officer' Terrson!"
Reaching beneath his coat jacket the guard extracted a small portable computer pad and turned it on. After several seconds of writing on its surface with a plastic pen, he began to speak softly into the built- in microphone.
"Data entry, Officer Martinez, authorization code upgrade subject Mr. Mike Terrson, ident code 543992"
With a tiny electronic voice the device replied, "Hospital computer database sentry, please wait... please wait...entry authorized, proceed."
"Officer Mario Martinez, authorization code 6274543-SS. Authorization code upgrade subject Officer Mike Terrson. Phrase... Thomas Edison... input cell number required... termination authorization key required ...activation phrase ... my brother's keeper."
"My brother's keeper?" Terrson whispered to himself as his eyes locked onto the shiny key resting by his feet.
"Say the words, 'Officer' Terrson." the guard ordered as he pushed the computer pad within a few inches of his face.
"My brother's keeper..."
"My brother's keeper...!"
"MY BROTHER'S KEEPER...!!!"
The small plastic device emits a loud beep and the guard returned it to an inner pocket of his jacket. Bending down he picked up the knife and slapped it handle first into Terrson's hand, while pointing again at the cooling body.
Without a word Terrson looked up into the guard's eyes hoping against hope to wake up safe from this nightmare. His only answer was a single word.
"But, I... but, I... but, I can't! I simply can't!" he yelled as he slowly backed into a corner of the cell.
Officer Martinez extracted his automatic pistol with a single unhurried motion and released the safety. With unblinking eyes he stared into the terrified man's face and slowly shook his head.
The implication was clear and uncompromising.
Seconds later the unmistakable sounds of metal scrapping across bone began to travel down the long and empty corridor. They almost masked the sound of a grown man crying.
"Very good, Mr. Phillips. A little too twilight zone-ish for my tastes, but not bad overall. You can rest for a moment if you wish."
Nearly panting in exhaustion the caninemorph lowered his head and tried to moisten his parched black lips with his long pink tongue.
"Water... can I have some water?" he asked, while trying to peer into the darkness beyond the surrounding beam of light.
"Of course!" The cigarette ember bobbed in the darkness as several loud 'clicks' of bone on bone broke the silence.
Over his shoulder a dimly seen arm reached out and deposited a bowl of water onto the chair's built-in writing shelf. The caninemorph immediately sank his muzzle into the bowl and lapped it dry within seconds. It's only when he rose his head that he read the words painted inside the plastic bowl.
"You fucking bastards!" he screamed/barked at the glowing cigarette ember, "Only a damned norm would think giving me a bowl with 'Fido' written in it was funny!"
He picked up the empty bowl and threw it at the unseen smoker. The sound of impact never occured as the heavy plastic bowl was caught in mid-flight. With the crunching sound of bone on hard plastic, the pieces were thrown back at his feet.
"And why would you think we're human norms, Mr. Phillips?" the same toneless, mechanical voice replied to the angry screams.
"Only a human norm would think up this kind of shit! Not to mention the incense you've been burning since I got here!"
"Don't you like it?" the voice replied. Even the electronic nature of the voice could do little to mask the lack of sincerity within this question.
"It's called 'Dogwood,' I picked it out personally just for you."
"Yeah, right! I like it a whole bunch! I'd like it even more if you'd stop burning that reeking crap and turn off all of those stupid voders."
"Why, Mr. Phillips? So that you could someday identify us with your canine sense of smell and, in your own words, 'bring us to justice for crimes against humanity'?
"Damned straight! You can't get away with this forever. Sooner or later the truth will come out! You can't protect these monsters forever. Especially... HIM!"
"Ah... the truth! And what an interesting fiction that is! It’s almost as much a 'fiction' as what you've been writing."
"FICTION!?!?" the caninemorph yelled back. "Every word is true! He's not dead! He just disappeared for a few years. Somehow he's done something to make himself unrecognizable. But he's still out there killing people!
"Come now, Mr. Phillips! Your story reads like a cheap detective novel. Why the strange format?"
"For... for... the movie." the caninemorph replied in a nearly inaudibly voice.
"Sorry... could you repeat yourself? Did you say 'movie'?
"Yes, damn it! I said 'movie!' I wanted to have it made into a movie after it got published in the paper!"
"Let me guess. First a writer and then you 'direct'?
Weird sounding electronic laughter rippled around the room as more of the unseen audience joined in. With a tiny burst of static a new 'voice' with female over-tones began to speak.
"But getting back to the point, Mr. Phillips. What about all the good that this fictitious 'monster' of yours may or may not have done?"
"Good!? Those government records Mona gave me only confirmed what I'd already discovered. That bastard is personally responsible for the deaths of over a hundred Scabs and the torture of thousands more! And the people he trained must've killed a dozen times that number!"
"Sad but true. Mistakes were made in the early years of the plague. And, as usual, the little people were the first to suffer."
"You heartless bastards! 'Little people my ass! Those were defenseless plague victims he killed! And what he did to those animal-norm Scabs that survived...", he started to scream in his harsh canine voice.
"Please start reading, Mr. Phillips." the female voice commanded again and cut him off in mid-sentence.
"Got to Hell!" He screams back.
"I know the place, Mr. Phillips. Believe me, I've been a resident for a long, long time." Even the artificial tones imparted by the electronic voder could do little to mask the sounds of sincere regret within this simple statement.
For a few seconds a series of small scratching sounds broke the silence, sounding as if long female nails were being dragged across a wooden desktop. As the sounds ceased the female voice ordered once again.
"Start reading. For your own good, please don't make me ask again."
"You stay here." Doctor Measures commanded the sole remaining guard as he opened the hospital director's office door.
"Good morning, Doctor ..." The balding man behind the paper cluttered desk started to greet the Doctor but was cut off in mid sentence.
"You called for me, Doctor Roberts?"
"It's about that code alpha admission we had last night. We seem to have a bit of a problem..." the man replied pointing at the occupied chair in front of his desk.
A young man raises from the chair and turns towards the Doctor, the plain black suit he's wearing practically screamed federal Agent. With a short, "It's an honor to meet you, Doctor!" the man extended his hand in greeting.
The hand just hung in mid-air for several seconds as Doctor Measures stared back and made no motion to return the greeting. Finally, the hand was lowered and the man began to talk rapidly.
"I'm Agent Matthew Liston of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Doctor."
"That's one." the Doctor replied.
"One 'what'?" the man replied in confusion.
"That's your first lie, Agent Liston." Doctor Measures answered in his characteristic deadpan voice.
"Care to try for number two?"
The look within the Doctor's eyes made Agent Liston subconciously retreat a step as he replied, "I don't know what you're talking about Doctor."
Turning around Doctor Measures slammed an open palm against the door and stepped aside as Officer Towers, with his weapon drawn, rushed into to room.
"SIR!" the security Officer screamed as his weapon swept across the room.
"Stand down, Officer Towers... and put that thing away." he commanded as he turned back to Agent Liston and began to speak.
"Officer Towers, would you please repeat what you just told me about last evening's code alpha admission."
"Of course, sir. As per your orders I accessed the computer admission log before we arrived at Doctor Peter's office. The hospital log was blank, sir. Whoever admitted the patient in cell number twenty two over-rode the computer security sentry and deleted whatever pass code they used. As far as the computer knows the patient in that cell doesn't exist."
"Could 'you' do that, Officer Towers?"
No, sir. That requires a level of security clearance far above my grade."
"Would anyone working for FEMA have that type of clearance, Officer Towers?"
"No sir, all plague victim admission files are classified and encrypted entries. Only the CDC director or someone above her would have the cyber keys required to alter those records."
"That'll be all, Officer Towers. Please wait for me outside, I won't be long."
The door closed and the room grew quiet. After several seconds the nervous young agent cleared his throat and began to speak.
"I'm sorry, Doctor, but I'm under strict orders to keep this incident under tight security."
"And what 'incident' would that be, Agent Liston... if that's even your real name." Doctor Measures replied sarcastically.
With a slight grimace the agent replied. "Yesterday morning one of our agents returned from overseas for de-briefing. He'd just ended a tour somewhere in Europe... I can't tell you where."
"His job was to contact our foreign operatives and recover their reports in regards to the situation over there."
"So?" The Doctor replied, "Everyone knows that they're just as bad off, if not more so, than we are. The Martian flu is everywhere."
"Yes it is, Doctor. But 'they' are beginning to exploit the victims and that has created a security nightmare!"
"Who in Hell are 'they'?" the Doctor asked in an increasingly irritated tone.
"Are you familiar with 'Buttons,' the vice president's Persian cat?" the Agent Liston asked.
"No, I don't give a fig about politics or who the heck is up there in Washington."
"I do!" Doctor Roberts called out, "He’s that beautiful white cat that he carries everywhere he goes, the one that replaced the dog that died a couple months ago, right?"
"That's correct, Doctor Roberts. Our agent sent back word that something was amiss about that animal. But he got violently ill on the plane trip back to Washington before he could tell us specifically what the problem was."
"His plane was diverted here and made an emergency landing yesterday afternoon. A local doctor mistook his condition for nervous exhaustion and sent him home for the night to recuperate. He was scheduled to continue his trip this morning."
Agent Liston grimaced even deeper before continuing.
"Our agent went fuzzie later that same evening. Whether it was the disease, or his deep conditioning, we still don't know for sure. But for some reason he killed his entire family and the next door neighbor."
"That's not exactly an infrequent occurrence, Agent Liston. And ..." Doctor Measures began to reply but was cut off by the agent's next words.
"Let me finish Doctor Measures. Like I was saying, since we didn't know what was wrong with the vice-president's cat, I was ordered to take it to the nearest military vet for examination. After six hours of rather intensive examination the animal was given a complete bill of health."
Agent Liston grew silent for a moment, re-living the events of the previous evening within his mind and then continued speaking.
"Unknown to me the vice-president's wife had called to complain to the Vet about the cat. 'Buttons,' or 'that damned raunchy fur ball' as she called him, was beginning to get on her nerves."
"Whenever the vice-president wasn't doing anything of importance, the cat would disappear for days at a time. It was caught several times leaving the White House compound and screwing anything even vaguely of the right size and sex nearby."
"Under her orders the Vet gave the cat a local anaesthetic and proceeded to neuter it. Unable to feel anything it didn't have a clue what was really going on. But no sooner than the Vet dropped its testicles on the table, and announced what he'd just done, it started screaming in Russian and changed into a full grown seven foot tall cat... thing!"
Agent Liston stopped momentarily to cough and rub his throat.
"Within two seconds the vet was dead! With a single swipe of the creature's claws his throat was just... gone! And just as fast it leapt off the table in my direction! I got off a lucky shot as it slipped on the bloody table top and..."
Agent Liston unbuttoned his shirt collar and showed the bandages wrapped around his throat and chest.
"... I don't think I'll ever forget that thing's screams!"
Agent Liston looked up to find Doctor Measures taking notes in a small paper notepad. With the tone of someone asking about the weather, he began to question Agent Liston.
"Did you feel any change of temperature in the room during the physical transformation, Agent Liston?"
"Err... no." Agent Liston replied with a puzzled tone.
"Did the cat feel excessively heavy? And how much would you say that the anthromorphic catman weighed?"
"No... it was just what you'd expect a house cat to weigh, I guess. And it felt like two, maybe three hundred pounds when it changed and landed on me."
"Could you tell what species the larger form was manifesting?"
"Ah... lion, no... saber tooth lion. That's right, saber tooth lion. It had two fangs 'this' long." Agent Liston seperated his hands to indicate a span of over six inches long.
"Thank you, Agent Liston." Doctor Measures replied as he wrote the words 'another multiform/polymorph?,' 'mass/energy conversion?' and 'extinct species' within the notebook and put it away.
"So, Doctor Measures, will you help us?" Agent Liston asked.
"Do what?" he replied while obviously still deep in thought about the catmorph's transformation.
"We must get our agent back, Doctor. We don't care what he's done or what he looks like. National security is a stake."
"Do you have any idea what you're asking?""
"Look, Doctor... I know your reputation. If someone is lost to a dangerous animal norm morph they don't have many options. Under martial law they're either destroyed or brought here... to you."
"You have the highest success rate in the city, if not the country, for bringing these people back to some type of sentience. How you do it is up to you. We 'must' have Agent Lupus back!"
"That's all I know about him. His deep cover name was Lupus."
"What are you willing to pay, Agent Liston?"
"Pay? Name it and it's yours! How much do you want?"
"Money doesn't much matter to me anymore, Agent Liston."
"So what 'do' you want?"
"I want 'Buttons' in my lab within twenty four hours for examination and autopsy. And I want 'you' down in the lab for a full battery of blood works and physical examinations so..."
"ME!" Agent Liston yelled, with the beginnings of true fear showing on his face and in his voice.
"Nothing too uncomfortable I assure you." Doctor Measures chuckled. You 'were' in direct contact with that... how did you call it?... 'a full grown seven foot tall cat thing'. I'd just like to have some baseline data before you start growing a tail and fur."
"... 'before you start growing a tail and fur.' Agent Liston repeated several times as the blood rushed from his face. "You don't mean I'll start turning into one of those things too!"
"We still don't know the means of transmission." Doctor Measures replied with obvious enjoyment of the man’s growing panic. "We haven't even identified what's causing the mutations yet."
"What about that researcher down at the CDC in Altanta?" Doctor Roberts said as he cut into the conversation. "I believe his name is Doctor Stern... Steel... Stein. Yes, that's right... Doctor Robert Stein. He's suppose to be getting close to isolating the causative agent. A vaccine should then be possible..."
"Oh, come on, Robby! You know that might take years! Poor Agent Liston here might be coughing up hair balls in a pet store window long before that happens!"
"Hair balls!" Agent Liston mumbled to himself as sweat began to bead on his forehead.
"So, Agent Liston? Are you going to get me what I want?" Doctor Measures slowly turned and stared directly at him.
"Sure... sure, I've just got to make some phone calls!" Agent Liston replied as he ran to the door in a near panic.
Just before he closed the door the Doctor Measures called out, "Agent Liston?"
"Yes, Doctor?" Agent Liston replied, nearly running in place in his urgency to leave.
"Someone told me once that the president has some goldfish in the Oval Office. Is that true?"
"Goldfish? Ah, right. Yes... yes, there's a bunch of them in his office and all around the White House. The president collects all kinds of fish."
"Well, I'd flush them if I were you. Can't be too careful now can we?" the Doctor replies in a matter of fact tone.
"Right... flush the fish! Flush the fish!" Agent Liston repeated out loud as he slammed the door and ran down to corridor in search of the nearest telephone.
"Was that 'really' necessary?" Doctor Roberts asked, nearly gagging in laughter.
"I despise bureaucrats... especially the federal kind. They pop out of nowhere and start giving me orders about things they don't understand. The world would be a better place if they'd all turn into earthworms like the patient that came in yesterday."
"So what 'are' you going to do to him?"
"I'll just check his injuries and make sure he was stitched up properly. You can't be too careful with cat claw cuts; the infection rate is always pretty high with those. And I 'will' take some tissue samples and such. Who knows? Maybe something interesting might show up."
The door was flung open several minutes later as agent Liston rushed into the room with Officer Towers right on his heels.
"Sorry, Doctor Measures! He got past me before I could stop him!"
"That's okay, let him pass, Officer Towers." the Doctor said and dismissed the guard with a wave of his hand.
"Well, agent Liston?"
"It's all been arranged! The body will be delivered tomorrow morning and my superiors have granted me administrative leave for as long as your tests require!" he announced in one breathless sentence.
"Excellent," Doctor Measures exclaimed, while grabbing the man by the elbow, "no time like the present!"
Waving goodbye farewell to Doctor Roberts he spun the stunned man around and practically dragged him out of the room. The last thing Doctor Roberts hears as the door closes was, "You'll just 'love' my little lab, Agent Liston!"
"Very good, Mr. Phillips! You can take another break if you like."
Without a word the papers were thrown down and brown canine eyes began to glare straight forward.
"Is there anything wrong? Are you thirsty again? Or are you perhaps a bit hungry? I'm sure we can dig up a doggie treat or two for you."
"Go to hell!"
"Please... do try to be a bit more original, you 'are' a writer after all."
Even more 'voices' rang out in laughter than before.
"I hope you sick bastards are enjoying this!" he screamed back. It's the least I can expect from your kind."
"And what kind would that be?" A new 'voice' asked from somewhere far away in the darkness.
"Sorry I'm so late. I just got here with some of my friends, Mr. Phillips. I'm sure my 'sick bastard' friends and I would just hate to be left out."
Peals of even louder laughter echoed across the room.
"You can't fool me, you mother$%*#$#s!" as he began to scream even louder. "You're all in this together!"
"That's true." the unseen smoker bobbed his head in agreement and the cigarette ember flares brighter. “But please try to control your language, there 'are' some young people here after all."
"That figures! You damned Nazi's are always trying to corrupt the next generation with your sick ideas."
"Now 'Nazi' is something no one has ever called me before!" another voice cuts in with a humorous tone.
"Well get use to it! Sooner or later the truth will come out! If I don't do it, someone else will!"
"Now 'that' I'm sure I've heard before." the smoker replies in a contemplative tone. "Let me think. How many times in the last twenty years of so... six, seven, eight times?"
"Nine times!" a voice behind the chair yelled out.
"No... I believe its been ten times!" another yelled from the right.
"No... you're both wrong!" a voice from even further away in the darkness yelled out. "It's been exactly eleven times in the last twenty years!"
"I stand corrected, Mr. Phillips. We've had exactly eleven people threaten to expose our 'little secret' from where you're sitting. Somehow that never seems to happen. I wonder why?"
The laughter bouncing around the room took on an even darker tone.
"Oscar, if you would..." The voice behind the cigarette commanded.
The shadowy figure standing behind the chair grabbed the backrest and began to push it forwards. With small wheels squealing in protest, the chair was pushed out of the weak light and into the darkness. Only when the chair was within a few feet of a dimly visible wall did the movement cease.
Suddenly a explosion of light and heat washed over the sitting caninemorph. With glare blinded eyes he looked up just in time to see white hot flames die and flicker out behind dozens of metal grates mounted on the wall before him.
"What the fuck was that!" he screamed, rubbing his eyes in pain.
"Come now! You 'did' research your story, didn't you?"
"You don't mean...?!" he tried to reply but the words froze in his throat.
"Congratulations, you got it on the first try! Welcome to Crematorium Number One, the largest and last standing of the six crematoriums built by the city during the height of the plague!"
"But they were all destroyed or disabled!" the caninemorph replies as he rubs the heat singed fur on his muzzle.
"That's true, but we brought this one back into service for 'special' occasions. We've done so 'eleven' times in fact."
The laughter ceased. With the silence practically ringing within his ears he barely noticed as the chair was pushed back to its original position.
"This crematorium was spared from destruction as a monument to those who died over twenty years ago, Mr. Phillips. It has become somewhat of a shrine to the local near-animal morphs... and Scabs in general. Most everyone else in the city tries to forget this place ever existed. I'm surprised you haven't been here before."
"How do 'you' know so much about this place?"
"I use to work here, Mr. Phillips. At first I helped burn the truck loads of human bodies they'd dump outside; those that died of the disease or were killed in the riots. Only later did the Scabs and 'animals' start showing up."
"You worked here?..." he asked, his muzzle wide in amazement.
"Oh yes, I worked here. Sometimes I feel like I've been here forever!"
The cigarette flared brighter and went out as it dropped to the floor.
"This room use to ROAR with the sounds of gas jets, Mr. Phillips!!! Twenty four hours a day for over a year the trucks never stopped coming! I'd work one, maybe two, shifts in a single day."
"The trucks would come... the trucks would come filled to capacity with the bodies of men, women and children. We would grab the bodies off the trucks and... and..."
The voice ceased as the words were replaced by deep sobs of anguish.
"There... there, sir! It's all right." the voice behind the chair called out.
"Get up... just give me an excuse..." the same voice whispered softly while tapping the sitting caninemorph on the shoulder with the gun barrel.
With the warning given Oscar called out again as he walked away and approached the wordless cries of anguish, "Please don't upset yourself, Frank. The doctor said it wasn't good for you to get too excited."
[Several moments later the sobs ended and a whispered conversation begins.]
"Thank you, Oscar. I don't know what I'd do without you."
"Think nothing of it. I'll take you back to the hotel if you like."
"No... I 'need' to stay here till the end. Just be here for me if I need you, Oscar."
The whispers ended and Frank's voice called out in a weak and wavering tone.
"Would someone else please continue?"
"Let me, Frank!" a loud voice announced as it grew closer. "Shit... don't tell me 'this' is the reason I had to get out of bed!"
"Sorry if I interrupted your beauty sleep," the caninemorph replied sarcastically, "I'll just leave if you want."
"By no means, fuzzy! It would never do if the guest of honor left the party before the grand finale!"
As the room erupted with even more laughter, a small metallic box flew through the air and crashed to the ground near the chair.
"To be frank, 'that's' the reason I had to get out of bed this evening."
"That looks like..."
"Yep, it looks like a hard drive. To be specific, it's what left of your computer's hard drive."
"You thieving bastard. How dare you..."
"Come now, flea farm! Don't you think we have the right to recover our property? But fear not... there's a bright and shiny new one in you computer right now. Our data files simply aren't in there for anyone to find. You should thank me, that piece of junk on the floor was going to fail pretty soon anyway."
"Thanks." The angry caninemorph replied, his voice dripping with false appreciation.
"You're welcome, doggy-boy! It was almost worth losing some sleep to go through that junk pile you call a computer. I wonder if your boss knows about the Internet sites you've been visiting on his time?"
[Sounds of papers being unfolded]
[sound of throat being cleared]
"The American Kennel Club... download 100's of our pictures of the top female breeders for free!"
"There must've been a couple hundred megabytes of this type alone, Bow wow! I particularly liked the 'Sassy Lassie' full cover spread of June, 2022."
All manner of catcalls and whistles echoed around the room.
"Or how about..." another page turned.
'The Canine Transformation Stories and Fur suit Archives... the largest Internet site of pre-Martian flu era canine pornographic stories and photo's of human female norms in canine costumes. Site rating XXX.'
"Ooooh! Bad dog! Bad dog indeed!"
The shouts and laughter grew even louder. Even a few obviously fake canine howls and barks erupted from the darkness.
"The Playboy on-line sex talk channel, human norms only. If white, black or yellow skin's your thing, cum talk to us! All credit cards accepted."
"Hey! I know that one..." an outraged male 'voice' yelled out in the darkness. "You would, you sexist pig!" an even angrier female 'voice' replied as the laughter grew louder.
"But seriously, lets forget about all these naughty little sites I found, Mr. Phillips. How about we talk about some of these e-mail messages...?"
A huge pile of papers fell and scattered on the floor near the hard drive.
"You seem to correspond with a 'whole' bunch of people, pooch."
"That's my job!"
"But what about all these on-line romances you seem to enjoy so much?"
"That's none of you're damned business!"
"True, very true. But isn't it rather odd that not 'one' of these human norm women I called knew that you're a Scab?"
"Come now, hair ball! Isn't it a bit strange... or is it some kind of mistake... that all these people, especially the women, don't have a clue what you are?!"
"ANSWER ME, DOG!" the voice screamed as the caninemorph squirmed in discomfort upon the chair.
"WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU'RE FOOLING!? DON'T THESE PEOPLE DESERVE TO KNOW WHAT KINDOF FILTHY BEAST THEY'RE DEALING WITH!? DON'T THEY DESERVE TO KNOW THE HUMAN NORM PHOTO YOU SEND THEM IS A LIE?! DON"T THEY?!?! DON'T THEY?!?! DON'T TH..."
[The screaming was cut short by the sounds of deep hacking coughs.]
"Relax, Tony!" The 'voice' of Frank called out. "You know these outburst aren't good for your heart!"
"TONY! Please listen to Frank!" 'Susan' begged as even more nails-on-wood scratching sounds were heard.
[The sounds of heavy breathing and coughs being amplified through an electronic voder continue for several seconds more.]
"Okay, Susan... Frank. I feel better now. Why don't you continue, Susan?"
"Only if you'll go lie down until it's time to return to the hotel."
"Fine... just don't forget to get me up in time for the 'weenie roast." the voice replied as it faded into the distance.
"WEENIE ROAST!" The caninemorph yelled back as he attempted to rise from the chair and was forceably re-seated once again. "What the hell do you creeps think you're doing?"
"Why... is there something wrong, Mr. Phillips?" the female voice inquired in a very bland unemotional tone.
"It 'is' quite normal for friends to 'throw a hot-dog on the barbie' when they get together on a Saturday night!"
The renewed laughter drowned out his 'colorful' reply. Only as the noise abated could his words be heard.
"... they'll find you! Someone from my apartment building must've called the police to report me missing by now!" the caninemorph yelled out. Each word was buried within canine barking.
"Really? With all the Scabs that go 'missing' or 'vanish mysteriously' each year, to whom exactly would you be referring to? Who would care enough to report you missing? To go looking for you? To make those phone calls? Would that be Howard Montel from B-2 or Marta Silcot from B-4?"
"Howard? Marta? Who the heck are they?! Larry lives in B-2 and Cindy lives in B-4!"
"I'm surprised at you, Mr. Phillips! For someone who claims to champion the cause of Scab rights, you simply don't know that many... do you?
"Come now! You've lived in that apartment for what...four years? Yes, that's right. You've lived there for almost as long as you've been a Scab if I'm not mistaken. And now you're trying to tell me you don't know the two near-animal norm Scabs that live right next door?!"
"I... ah, I... ah" he tried to reply but the words refused to leave his throat.
"Larry and Cindy are 'humans,' Mr. Phillips. Normal... hard working... fun loving... norm human beings! You're not like them anymore... or hadn't you noticed?"
The female voice raised in pitch and volume in anger.
"I 'was' talking about that flea-bitten male Husky mutt that lives with Larry, and that squawking feather duster of a female Green Parrot that lives with Cindy."
"Come now, you can't tell me you don't remember how many times those 'animals' tried to make friends with you! How many times that mangy mutt tried its brain damaged best to talk to you... dog to dog!"
"What's the matter, Mr. Phillips?"
“Surely you remember how that 'bird' showed up at you door late one night. It must've spent hours scratching out that stupid little paper note it tried to give you. It wanted so desperately to communicate with another Scab. TO COMMUNICATE WITH YOU!!!"
Once again the harsh sound of nails being dragged repeatedly across wood interrupted the flow of words.
"And what did she get? A door slammed in her beak!"
"But, how?" he finally asked.
"Did you really think nobody would notice you 'hitting' on human females, Mr. Phillips? Did you really think that our 'friendly little group' wouldn't notice how vulnerable you'd become... how easy a target you'd become... by rejecting every attempt by your fellow Scabs to make contact with you?"
"Did you really think you weren't being watched?"
"Friendly?" the caninemorph asked quietly to himself as the implications of that particular word began to sink in.
Ignoring the caninemorph's comments the female voice continued. "These words were written a long time ago, and they apply to human and Scab alike... 'There is strength in numbers'."
"And you, creature, are all alone!"
Screaming in panic the caninemorph is pushed back into the chair once again as his voice echoes loudly from wall to wall.
"Friendly! You people are the 'Friends of Humanity!' You bastards torture and kill Scabs!"
"I think it's time for you to start reading again."
"No... I won't!" he screamed back, as he fought the hands holding him in the chair."
The room began to reel as the hands moved to his throat and started to squeeze. His short claws proved useless against the leather gloved hands as they slowly crushed his windpipe. With rough paw pads and claws scraping futilely against the cold concrete floor, his legs jerked uncontrollably as he tried to raise out of the chair.
"Start reading!" Oscar's voice commanded, whispering directly into one of his ears. The scent of madness within Oscar's body odor overpowered his canine senses, despite the reeking incense.
"You don't have much time left. The dawn comes!"
The hands suddenly released his throat. As he gasped for air, the torn pages were slammed into his heaving chest. Gagging and sputtering the words soon began to flow off the pages.
"That wasn't too bad, Agent Liston!" the Doctor declared cheerfully from behind his desk.
"Easy for you to say!" Agent Liston mumbled to himself as he tried to place his needle-punctured posterior gently atop one of the Doctor's office chairs.
"So, what do we do now?" he asked.
"'We' will do nothing, agent Liston. 'I' am going to leave for a few minutes and re-shuffle the schedule around. I should be able to fit Mr. 'Lupus' into one of the processing rooms by noon or so. Doctor Morton will be free by then."
"But my orders state that only you should work him, Doctor! The State Department won't let anyone else hear what he might say."
"That's impossible, Agent Liston. I have two high degree patients prepped and waiting for me already... and three more scheduled for this afternoon. But don't worry, Doctor Morton is a good man. I trained him myself and I'm sure he'll have your agent up and running in a few weeks."
"Damn it, Doctor! Please understand, we don't have that kind of time! It's you or nobody! And it's now or never!" Agent Liston replies in a near panic.
The Doctor watched curiously as Agent Liston fumbled around in a metal briefcase and extracted two small manila folders. Reading the titles, he handed one to Doctor Measures.
"'That' is the federal grant and approval papers you've been asking for all year, Doctor. With those documents, and the federal funds they represent, the city can start construction on that Martian Flu hospital wing you've been asking for. You'll finally have modern facilities and more than adequate funds to staff it. And much, much more."
"More 'what"? Doctor Measures asked as he turned the folder over and over in his huge hands.
"Inside that folder is a signed photocopy of the President's veto of Congressional Act number 342-12-2003. The so-called, 'Emergency Martian Flu Dangerous Morph Confinement and Termination Act'.
Without the President's full approval, Congress will never, I repeat, 'never' be able to get that bill past both houses of Congress."
"And what's in the other one, Agent Liston?" the Doctor asked as he pointed at the folder still in the briefcase.
"Just the opposite, Doctor. We won't be able to keep this mess a secret for more than another day or two. This is just the opportunity some right wing extremists in Congress have been praying for."
"If the president shows any sign of weakness... if this incident can't be rectified before it becomes common knowledge... his own party will throw him to the wolves! And then..."
Agent Liston grew silent as he repeatedly re-straightened his tie and figited within his chair. It was obvious that he'd just revealed more than he'd intended to say.
"And then 'what,' Agent Liston?"
"And... and... then we'll shut this place down. I'm under direct orders to close this facility if you refuse or fail to recover our agent. No trace of this place, or the others you've squirreled away around the country will exist within twenty four hours."
Agent Liston leaned forward and removed the folder from the Doctor Measures' hands. With a loud metallic crash he dropped the folder back within the case and slammed the top shut.
"You know the situation as well as I do, doctor. Things out there are damned bad and getting worse. The numbers we've been feeding everyone are a joke! By now there must be at least seven million dead in the US, and the chrome domes at the CDC estimate it'll peak around fourteen million before things level off."
"Everywhere you go these 'things' are crawling around and we don't have a fraction of the number of medical facilities to treat or house them. What's left of the economy will take years to build back up and what's worse...we're the lucky ones!
"Except for threats of war we've lost all contact with the governments of South America, Africa, and Asia! The ECU is falling apart at the seams and they're all rearming to the teeth! Needless to say there isn't a country on the planet that doesn't hate our guts!"
"Hell... if whatever leaked out of that damned probe hadn't spread so fast we wouldn't even be having this conversation. Our best 'friends' in NATO would've nuked the shit out of us to save themselves!"
"So what will the president do?" Doctor Measures asked as he leaned back in his chair and waited for Agent Liston to finish venting his frustrations.
"The man has few options left, Doctor. He's not going to let the United States fall apart like Europe. If holding the country together means letting the nutcases in Congress initiate their 'final solution'... well that's what he'll do."
"Final solution? Final solution, as like in Nazi Germany? You don't mean...?"
"Well, they're not calling it 'that' of course, but it's only a matter of semantics. They've got plans for all kinds of 'Morphic Care Facilities'. That 'rabbit hutch' they just finished building outside Town for the fuzzy, wuzzy lapine types is just a prototype."
Agent Liston picked up the heavy briefcase and placeed it on his lap. With fingernails taping on the metal top, he continued talking in a softer tone.
"Sir, I've seen some of the plans these fanatics have drawn up. Nothing, and I do mean nothing, infected by this disease is going to survive. They won't stop at euthanizing just the known dangerous species. They plan to immediately eliminate any victim that can't be proved sentient or useful."
"After 'that' they want to cover this country with hundreds of 'recovery work camps'. Places where MF victims can be 're-trained' to aid in the nation's recovery."
Agent Liston banged his fist so hard on top of the briefcase that it fell to the floor. His voice began to rise both in volume and urgency.
"It's a damned lie! What we're really going to have is hundreds of gigantic slave labor camps or worse clustered around every city in the country!"
"The 'workers' will have no rights whatsoever! Their only function will be to work until they drop! And then, if they're bodies aren't immediately thrown onto a bonfire, something 'useful' will be created from their corpses!"
"That's impossible! No civilized country in the world would allow this to happen!"
"Would you like a list?" agent Liston replied sarcastically.
"But this is a medical problem, it's not something that can be solved by wholesale slaughter!"
"Now you know why we 'must' have agent Lupus back, Doctor. That young agent just spent the last four months undercover. He travelled to parts of the world that would make any sane man's nightmares pale to nothing. During his mission he collected incontrovertible evidence from what few agents we still have left overseas."
"Locked in his skull are the access codes to all the data disks he smuggled out... and we don't have months to break them! With the images and data in those files none of this will ever happen. No death camps... no forced sterilization... no mass deportations to 'holding facilities,' no nothing!"
"How exactly is that going to be accomplished?" the Doctor asked, leaning forward to look into the agent's worried face.
"If we can get this information out to the media the people will never agree with what the president's enemies plan to do. This evidence, plus the evidence we've compiled about their activities, will drive them out of office long before the upcoming election!"
Visibly shaking with emotion, agent Liston took several deep breaths and continued talking even faster than before. "Sure, we won't get them all. We never do. But we'll get enough breathing room to get a handle on the current situation before they return in force. We’ll be able to stop this nightmare from ever happening!"
"Doctor, please. I must have your answer now!" Agent Liston asked in a near begging tone.
Ignoring the agent, Doctor Measures turned aside and picked up the telephone from receiver off his desk.
"Nurse Liverman, please."
"Good morning. Could you please take a message for Doctor Morton?"
"He's right there? Please put him on. Thank you."
"Morning, Morty... there's been a change of plans."
"Yes... yes, I know you're booked up for the day, but I need you to take over my morning run too."
"Of course. Yes, I know you have the ostrich for this afternoon. But he's not going anywhere as long as he thinks those fake eggs are his to guard."
"Okay, how about this? You take my morning cases and I'll lend you two of my best orderlies for a week."
"No, Morty. One week."
"Okay, you've got me over a barrel. Two weeks and not a day longer!"
"Yes, Morty. The deer is in ward two, the alligator and beaver are in ward four."
What? Yes, that's correct. Just three. Why?"
"Well, the porcupine died of internal injuries yesterday. The capture squad was too rough bringing her in. And the boa got loose again and she's hiding somewhere between floors two and three. She's bond to show herself in a few days when she gets hungry again."
"Why's she not hungry now?"
"Somehow she got into the small mammal cages down in DNA evaluation before she disappeared. We're still doing an inventory to see how many are missing."
"How many? I'm guessing around four or five."
"Human? Unknown. We're going to have to pump her stomach or do stool samples to be sure."
"So, you'll only have the North American Beaver, the Florida Alligator and the Mule Deer for this afternoon. The first two are coming around slowly but the cervidae seems to be a lost cause."
"Yes... yes, just do your best and I'll sign the termination order if necessary. Don't worry, I trust your judgement. Just watch out for those antlers, it's responsible for two death already."
"You're a peach, Morty. I won't forget you for this. Thanks."
"Very good. Oh... before I forget. We might be getting the funds for that veterinary C.A.T scanner you've been bugging Doctor Roberts..."
A loud scream of joy erupted from the phone receiver as Doctor Measures jerked the phone away from his ear.
"Damn it, Morty! Don't yell into the phone! Yes... yes, I know you're happy. I'll talk to you soon."
"Goodbye, and thanks, Morty."
The Doctor returned the phone to its cradle and turned around as Agent Liston leaned back in his chair with a smile on his face.
"Well, it’s done, Agent Liston."
"Thank you, Doctor Measures!"
"I wouldn't thank me just yet, agent Liston." Doctor Measures replied as he arose from behind his desk. He walked around the desk and poked agent Liston hard in the chest with one finger as his next statement made the smile vanish.
"I still have two patients to treat, and you're going to help me."
A paw-like hand banged down on the desktop.
"Can't you see! That bastard couldn't do it all alone! He infected others with his insanity!" the caninemorph started screaming, as he stopped reading.
"What others would that be, Mr. Phillips?" the female voice asked with a tone bordering on boredom.
"Don't patronize me! Their names are all in those files you stole from me!"
"Those wouldn't be the same files you stole from us, would they? The same file you convinced Mona to get you?"
"Yes! Where is she!? What've you done to her!?"
"She's fine, you'll be seeing her soon enough."
"Yo... Mr. Phillips!" a new 'voice' called out. "I'm curious... where did'ya get the information to re-create the conversations between Doctor Measures and agent Liston?"
"Come now. Answer him."
"Oscar...?" the female voice called out.
A heavy hand fell upon the caninemorph's right shoulder. Slowly the fingers closed and the pressure mounted.
"AAAHHHH! STOP! I'LL TALK... I'LL TALK!"
"Very co-operative of you, Mr. Phillips."
[Sounds of snickers and low chuckles]
"I... stole his diary." he replied in a low voice.
"I'm really sorry. I don't think they heard what you said in the back."
"I STOLE HIS FUCKING DIARY!"
"Would you mind elaborating?" the female voice asked as the scratching sounds repeated themselves.
"Agent Liston disappeared shortly after visiting Mercy Medical. He checked in with his superiors and requested an extension of his leave for medical reasons. He was never seen again."
"I found his micro palmtop in his mother's home. He must've forgotten it when he visited her to say he'd be leaving for a long trip. He'd been using the built in sound activated microphone to take notes and to secretly record his visits to the hospital."
"The batteries had leaked and corroded the insides to junk, but everthing was still there safe and sound on the tiny cdrom inside. I still can't prove it, the recordings end before then, but I'm sure the Doctor had something to do with his disappearance."
"You found it?" the female voice asked in an incredulous tone, "You just 'happened' to find it?"
"Okay, okay... I told his mother I was a detective investigating his disappearance. The old woman practically begged me to check out his room. I found it in an old toiletries bag he'd left behind. It was disguised as a cellular telephone. No one had ever bothered to open the plastic case but me."
"See... I 'told' you Stuart missed something in that house!" a new voice yelled out of the darkness.
"To Hell with you, Brad!" the first voice replied. "That was over twenty years ago! How was I to know where that junior G-Man hid it? He wasn't exactly in a talkative mood by that time I was sent to look for it!"
Another light round of laughter filled the room.
"Please, gentlemen, let Mr. Phillips continue. So this 'device' was the source of most of the detailed conversations within your story, Mr. Philips?"
"Yes! 'That' and the hospital surveillance tapes and medical logs Mona got for me. But at least I didn't kill him!"
"Regardless, this still doesn't make you much of a writer, does it? And who said we killed him, Mr. Phillips? Death is not the worst thing that can happen, you know. And we'll be showing you that shortly... won't that be grand!?"
"Come now... you lied to an old woman to enter her home. And once inside you stole the last words her son, her missing 'human' son, would ever speak. Doesn't that make you feel proud?"
A hard slap to the back of the head broke his silence.
"Ouch! Fuck! Alright, already! No, I'm not proud of what I did! And I'm sorry I stole the damned thing without letting her hear it! Are you happy now!?"
"Soon, Mr. Phillips. Very... very soon."
[sound of throat clearing cough]
"I'm feeling much better now, I'd like to continue."
"Only if you don't smoke another one of those vile things."
"Don't worry, Oscar took them away again... the monster!"
At least a dozen loud 'Thank heavens' erupted from the darkness as even more laughter filled the room.
"That's fine, Frank. I'm getting a bit tired myself and I'll need awhile to recover. I'm not as young as I use to be."
"You'll always to beautiful to me, sweet cakes."
"Oh, Frank! I bet you say that to all the girls!"
The laughter returned even louder and echoed through the vast room again.
"Good evening... sorry... good morning again, Mr. Phillips. Sorry I had to leave you before, but I'm sure my friends kept you entertained while I took a little break."
"Yeah... right, we had a ball!" the caninemorph growled, while trying to stretch his cramped limbs without rising from the uncomfortable chair.
"Glad to hear it, fuzz nuts. But tell me, how did you meet Mona?"
"Come now, it's not like she hasn't told us everything already."
"If you hurt her...!" the caninemorph replied in a threatening tone.
"No more meaningless threats, Mr. Phillips. Please answer the question... time grows short."
"I met her... I met her the day Donnie took me to the Blind Pig."
"I'm surprised! I'm shocked! 'You' inside a Scab hangout with all those strange looking beasties and whatnot? What happened, get lost?"
"Ha... Ha! Very funny! At least I belong there!" the caninemorph replied.
"Well what do you know? The bow-wow finally admits he's not just your average Joe Blow norm. Maybe if he'd spent more time looking into that walking hamburger's bar mirror he wouldn't be here with us tonight?"
Whistles and fake 'moos' nearly drown out the caninemorph's angry response. "... leave Donnie out of this! He's the only one that I..."; the sentence goes unfinished as two paw like hands rise and clamp around his muzzle.
"Say again? 'The only one that I'... 'what'?"
"Come now, do you really think we don't know? Our little group has been watching the Blind Pig since it opened. Donnie called you time after time to come down after your first, and only, visit. Don't you think you should've gone back after he saved your life and got you that job at the paper?"
[sound of a small switch being clicked on] [a dim red light begins to glow far away in the darkness] [sounds of turning pages]
"Mr. John Porter, age twenty six, born Miami, Florida. Graduated college with bachelor's degree in journalism, worked for two years as cub reporter for Miami Herald until he contracted the MFV at age twenty two. Two failed suicide attempts within first year. Departed Florida and moved up north shortly after recovery from sleeping pill overdose. Second suicide attempt interrupted by courageous local business man, Mr. Donnie Sinclair of..."
"ENOUGH! PLEASE STOP!"
"Why, Mr. Mark Phillips, AKA Mr. John Porter? It was quite courageous of that slab of beef to climb out on that little ledge and pull you back in. You would've made some pretty hairy street pizza on that sidewalk."
"Come now... start talking or we might have to 'invite' Mr. Sinclair down here to fill in the gaps in your story."
"No! Don't hurt him! I'll tell you anything you want to know!"
"Yes, it's all true. I tried to kill myself four years ago when I became... when I changed. My folks freaked when I left the hospital, the shock almost killed my mother. And when I went back to work it was almost as bad."
"Most of the people at the paper tried to be kind, but I could see the look in their eyes. The little jokes, the flea collars left on my desk, the fact that none of the women would enter the elevator alone with me... all of it finally got to be too much. When they finally fired me I moved to the city to get away but nothing changed, if Donnie hadn't grabbed me..."
"So that refugee from McDonalds saved your life. Shunning your own kind is a strange way to show your gratitude."
"What happened on that ledge, Mr. Phillips?"
"'They' laughed at me! The crowd just got bigger and bigger and they laughed at me! They started whistling and clapping their hands like they were calling a dog! They wanted me to jump!"
"Who? Who wanted you to jump off that ledge?"
"The humans! The human norms treated me like an animal! ME!"
"Very interesting. But tell me... why didn't you jump?"
"I'M NOT A FUCKING ANIMAL! I'M A HUMAN BEING!"
"Are you sure? Deep down, are you absolutely sure?"
"I asked you a question, Mr. Phillips."
Suddenly the caninemorph's spine crashed against the chair's backrest. With brutal force, his long furry tail had been grabbed and pulled through an opening in the back. The scream of agony had barely escaped his lips as a shiny switchblade snapped open before his eyes.
"I'm going to count to three." Oscar announced as the blade vanished and the caninemorph felt the pressure of the sharp edge at the base of his spine.
"STOP! STOP!" the caninemorph screamed as tears began to flow.
"That'll be enough for now, Oscar."
"If you say so, Frank." Oscar replied as he gave the tail one final jerk and snapped the knife shut.
The loud metallic sound almost make the caninemorph jump out of the chair.
"Okay, Mr. Phillips. One more time... are you sure you are a human being?"
"I... I... I'm not sure about anything anymore." he replied as one paw-like hand dries his tear streaked muzzle while the other massages the entire length of his tail. "If Donnie hadn't..." the caninemorph lowered his head once more and grew silent.
"Please continue. What did Mr. Sinclair do?"
Looking straight down the caninemorph replied in a weak and uncertain tone. "He... he... he grabbed me! He walked out on that ledge and grabbed me like I was a little lost puppy! Donnie's four times my fucking size! He could've thrown me back through my apartment window with no effort at all, but he didn't. All he did was raise a hand and wave his fingers in my face. When I told him I didn’t understand that sign lanquage stuff he pulled a huge old voder and jammed it into his throat. I could tell it hurt him to use it, and there was blood leaking from the side of his muzzle after the first few words, but he used it anyway. The softest... the most gentle 'voice' I've ever heard in my life came out of that machine and asked me..."
"Asked you what, Mr. Phillips?"
"He asked me if I really wanted to die! He just spun me around in his hands like I weighed nothing and made me look him straight in the face! All I could see was the horns, muzzle and eyes of a damned bull asking if I wanted to die. And then..."
"Yes... go on."
"Just before he turned the voder off, he told me the only way I would fall off that ledge would be in his arms! That if I wanted to die so badly I'd have to take him with me... that he wouldn't let me die alone!"
The caninemorph stopped speaking and started to quietly sob.
"And I believed him! The first person to really care about me since 'this' happened to me was an animal! An animal like me! An animal like me! An animal like..." he replied repeatedly as the words run dry and his voice grew silent once again.
"What happened next, Mr. Phillips?"
"I don't remember much after that. I remember saying no. Suddenly I'm in this seedy bar getting drunk; or at least, 'I' was getting drunk, and Donnie's daughter is asking me a million questions. All kinds of... I don't what the heck they were... are trying to talk to me but I was too far gone to care. After his daughter made some calls he shoved a piece of paper in my pocket and went back to tending bar."
"A little while later someone dumped me in the back of this humongous black car. I almost wet myself when this beautiful woman gets behind the wheel and starts to drive. I don't think anyone without one of these would notice," the caninemorph pointed at his wet black nose, "but she smelt like a huge friggin' snake!"
"She drove me to this old building on the west side of town, I think her name was Splendor or something. The next thing I remember it's seven a.m. the next morning and I'm lying muzzle down on this stinky old canvas cot."
"I turn over to get away from the smell and I almost dropped right off! On the cot to my right was something that looked like a cross between a woman and a scorpion! And to my left there's something so covered in black fur that I can't even guess which end the snores are coming from!"
"I've got the worst hangover of my life, I'm surrounded by who knows what, and an angel is sitting on the chair next to my bed."
"Yes, damn it, Mona!"
"Ah... young love!" the voice replied in a tone somewhere between wistful and sarcastic.
"So what happened next, Rover? Sorry! So what happened next, Romeo?"
"We talked for about an hour. I barely even noticed when the other two Scabs got up and left. She spoke about her family far away out west, and how much she like working as an assistant social worker for someone named Phil..."
"And..." the voice in the darkness asked with a hint of boredom.
"'And' I told her about my family kicking me out and the trouble I'd been having adjusting to... 'this'." the caninemorph raised his paws and momentarily covered his muzzled features.
"Not once did she look away when I stared directly at her, or pull away when I accidently touched her hand. It'd been so long since anyone had treated me... treated me like before."
"Very touching, Mr. Phillips. But I'm curious. Did you hump her right then-and-there on the cot or did you wait until you got her to your apartment?"
"DON"T TALK ABOUT HER LIKE THAT!" the caninemorph screamed as he was pushed back into the chair once again. "SHE'S WORTH A THOUSAND TIMES MORE THAN YOU BASTARDS!"
"Quite possible. But you 'did' get her to steal for you. A few weeks later she stole Splendor's pass codes and raided the shelter's computer. With the data files she found there she was able to upload Mercy General's archived files to your home computer."
"Why did she do this, Mr. Phillips?"
"Because I asked her to."
"So you admit you 'were' the driving force behind this theft! But why would you do such a thing? What possible interest could you have in these old medical files and census records?"
"Excuse me? Your 'what'?"
"A little over an hour after I started talking to Mona I was called downstairs to answer the phone. This guy starts screaming at me as soon as I picked up the receiver. It seemed I was late for my first day on the job! When I asked what the hell he was talking about he told me to look in my pocket."
"I emptied all of my pockets and Donnie's note fell to the floor. I couldn't believe it! There on that paper was the name and telephone number of the National Inquisitor! I'd given up trying to get a newspaper job in the city...any job at all... and now I had one!"
"You 'can't be serious, Mr. Phillips! The National Inquisitor a 'newspaper'? Last week they interviewed some crazy Canadian ursinemorph who's trying to pass himself off as Big Foot! Talk about a waste of good trees!"
Loud snickers and several fake canine barks echoed around the room.
The caninemorph yelled back in anger, "Lets see you look like 'this' and get a real job!" The caninemorph replies as he points at his digitgrade legs, clawed paws and near norm bloodhound head.
"I tried for over a year and they'd barely look at me let alone talk to me! My letters of recommendation and college diploma weren't worth shit! And now... out of the blue... I had a real job!"
"My heart bleeds for you, pooch. Do you think that stinking job was worth all this?!"
"How would you know? I couldn't get a job sweeping floors in any paper in this town before. There was nothing I wouldn't do to get keep that job!"
"Interesting choice of words." the voice replied in a pensive tone.
The caninemorph cringed in anticipation of another physical assault.
"Yes, Frank?" Oscar answers in a mild tone.
"Be a good fellow and go to the car. I left my laptop next to the cage in the back seat. Wait... better yet, bring the cage too."
"But what about...?" Oscar replie in obvious referral to the sitting caninemorph.
"You know what to do, Oscar. It's getting late and we wouldn't want our 'honored guest' to feel uncomfortable while you're gone. Why don't you take care of that before you go."
Oscar's reply is a loud "GET UP!" screamed into the caninemorph's right ear. Nearly rocketing upwards the surprised Scab bolts straight into Oscar's waiting hands. With a soft 'click' a heavy leather collar snaps shut around his furry neck as the attached chain jerks him to an abrupt halt.
With a hard pat on the head, and a yelled 'STAY!,' Oscar walks around the chair and grabs the front of the caninemorph's shirt. With a single motion, and the flash of sharpened steel, the shirt is torn off baring a thinly furred torso.
Within seconds pants and undergarments join the shirt's remains tossed onto the floor. Momentarily stunned, the naked caninemorph tried to speak but could only emit a continuous series on canine whines and whimpers.
Ignoring the shivering fur covered figure Oscar walked away. As the exterior door opened, Oscar's silhouette is momentarily outlined by the light of earliest dawn. The only features the caninemorph can distinguish is an aged human head covered by short white hair and a small cloth skull cap.
Several seconds later Mr. Phillips recovered his voice in mid scream, "...WHAT"S HIS FUCKING PROBLEM!?"
He rattled the floor anchored chain in anger as he tried to cover his 'sensitive' regions with paws unequal to the task.
"Oscar?" the voice replied from the darkness.
"Yes, Oscar!" he barked back as he abandoned the attempt to adjust the collar with shoulder movements. With both paws he grabs the heavy collar and spun it around in a fruitless attempt to find the clasp. Whistles and catcalls bounce off the concrete walls.
"Hey, Martha! Look at them buns!"
"Right! I've seen better on a poodle, Susan!"
"Heah, but I thought he was a bloodhound Scab! He looks more like a Chihuahua to me!" yet another female voice commented from out of the darkness.
Female laughter echoes around the room as Mr. Phillips jumps back onto the chair and covered himself as best he could with the pages of his story.
"Ladies, please!" Frank called out to the unseen laughing female audience. "Lets not embarrass our guest. His 'shortcomings' are not his fault!"
The laughter grows and fills the huge room.
Mr. Phillips replies with a series of angry mutterings and growls.
"Sorry, stubby... er, Mr. Phillips. Do you remember that I told you how several of us worked here way back when?
"Yeah, so what?" he replied as he tried to balance the pages in his lap, while attempting to pull off the dog tags hanging from the collar.
"Oscar hates coming here... and I don't particularly like the people that cause him to return either. You see, he lost both his grandparents and most of his relatives in the death camps in Germany. What little survived of his generation vanished 'here'. Yes, that's right... right here!"
"Oscar and I go 'way' back, fuzzy. Way...way back. You could say we grew up together. I was the best man at his wedding and godfather to his kid. When the 'troubles' began we both volunteered to serve in the army and we kept together even after our unit was transferred here."
"When his wife and daughter got sick, we took turns taking care of them and hiding their condition from the authorities. For weeks we cleaned and feed them as their bodies slowly melted away...twisted away into things that have no names in any sane universe. When it was all over I brought them here!"
"Oscar 'lived' for his family, Mr. Phillips. Everything he did, everything he endured, had the single goal of keeping them safe... and it didn't work. Can you even begin to understand that? When they died that night I saw the light go out behind his eyes. Never again would my best friend be the carefree spirit I've known since childhood."
"He just stood there and watched as I scrubbed out that chamber right behind you. On hands and knees I climbed inside and removed the unburned bones and washed the fire bricks until they practically glowed. As Oscar stood frozen nearby I placed their bodies inside and burned them. Covered in human ashes from head to toe I held him back with all of my strength when he tried to jump into the flames after them!"
"Later that same evening we walked across town and I broke into a rabbi's home. At gun point I kidnapped the man and made him drive us out of the city. With our army uniforms, and his special license plates, we got past all the police road blocks and I buried their ashes behind the old Jewish synagogue."
"As the rabbi sung their souls to rest I buried their ashes by hand atop the same mass grave that contained the rest of Oscar's family. I can still feel the soft dirt as I dug deeper and deeper and deeper..."
[sounds of labored breathing]
"... and deeper! Oscar didn't say a word that night or for a almost a year afterwards. When the army discharged him under section eight I took care of him."
"We've been together ever since. When it was my turn... when it was my turn to suffer..." the voice stopped as the exterior door opened again.
"Here you go, Frank." Oscar announced as he crossed the room. Within moments a very dim glow began to shine. Only the square outline of a small portable computer screen could be seen far in the darkness.
"Thank you, Oscar. Would you please resume your position? And Kim could you please come here and work the keyboard for me? My hands aren't what they use to be."
"Coming!" a voder distorted voice yells out.
"Lets continue, Mr. Phillips. You were saying that, quote 'nothing I wouldn't do to get keep that job,' unquote. What exactly did you mean by that?"
"Just what it sounds like. I would do 'any' job they gave me. I serviced the computer system after working hours. I helped the printers carry the boxes of supplies off the trucks and down to the printing room. I even worked for weeks down in the vault doing background research for the full time reporters."
"Hell... I didn't care what it was. When Mr. Moholland asked me to pull out the old census data going back to the turn of the century..."
"Stop, Mr. Phillips. Who's Mr. Moholland?" the voice asks over the soft clicking sounds of a computer keyboard.
"Mr. Thomas Moholland, he's the chief editor."
"That can't be right, Mr. Phillips. That bleeding heart Scabs lover Howard Lipton is the chief editor, and he's been so for over twenty years."
"Well, he 'was' the chief editor until about two months ago. That's when the Murdock News conglomerate bought a controlling interest in the paper. They've been buying up small newspapers across the country by the dozens. Mr. Lewis still holds the official title of chief editor but the real one is Mr. Moholland."
"Moholland? Moholland? Now where've I heard that name before?" Frank's voice asks himself out loud as the keyboard continues clacking away.
"Kim, lets have a full search on this Mr. Moholland. Cross check his name against all our databases, I have a feeling we're going to have to deal with this gentleman 'real' soon..."
"Oh, shit... I completely forgot about the mutt. Sorry about that, Mr. Phillips! At my age you tend to forget about the little things. Tell you what, how about you continue your little story. I'm going to be busy for a while."
"Mr. Phillips seems to have a serious hearing problem. Why don't you remove one of those ears. I'm no vet but that should improve things."
"The right or left, Frank?" Oscar inquired as his switchblade snapped open again with a loud metallic 'click'.
"Take your pick, big guy. There's always the other one..." Frank replied with a disinterested tone.
"FUCK YOU!" the caninemorph screamed back as he covered both ears with his paws and started to read.
As the elevator doors open the Doctor announced loudly, "Welcome to OZ, Agent Liston."
"OZ?!" Agent Liston screamed back, over the animal howls and screeches echoing down the long corridor.
"Yes, one of our young interns named it that shortly after we opened up this floor." Doctor Measures replied as he waved the two security men forward.
"Unfortunately, it stuck and then..." he replied in a tone of voice so rare with him... humor.
"What's so funny?" Agent Liston asked as they followed the guards down the corridor and through the armored entrance.
"I just remembered what happened next..." he replied shaking slightly with internal mirth.
"And...?" Agent Liston asked, knowing he's falling into yet another of the doctor's gallows humor pranks.
"He went fuzzie a few days later... but he didn't change all that much really. Just a little feline fur here and there, and a long tail. The teeth did look a bit shocking though."
"So he partially turned into a cat. What's so funny about that?" Agent Liston asked waiting for the other shoe to drop.
"A low degree lion morph actually." Doctor Measures replied as he stopped speaking in anticipation of the next question."
"He had a pathological fear of large cats! He really became the scared lion from Oz!" The dry laughter made the guards overhearing the conversation shudder as the oft repeated punch line was delivered.
"Ah...Ah... is he down here, Doctor?" Agent Liston asked as he unconsciously rubbed the bandages around his throat.
"Well...no," Doctor Measures answered in his usual deadpan tone of voice, "he blew his brains out shortly thereafter."
Agent Liston scratching comes to a halt as he jerked his hands to eye level. In a near panic he examined them for any sign of fur or claws. Finding neither he self-consciously jammed them deep within his pockets. He never noticed Doctor Measures’ silent appraisal of his actions.
With each step down the corridor the sounds of animal life increased with the growing addition of human voices. With the final turn they emerged into total chaos.
"Is it always this crowded, Doctor?" Agent Liston asked as he waved toward the crowds of hospital personnel and the animalmorphs they were trying to control.
"The recovery teams bring in roughly twenty to twenty five patients for evaluation each day, Agent Liston. Our resources are quite limited and we must make do with what little we have. We deal down here with the worst of the worst mostly. The ones that have either killed or injured people. We keep the wildest behind those metal doors, until we can determine if there's any human intelligence remaining."
"And then what?" Agent Liston began to ask but was interrupted, as he jumped aside to allow several orderlies carrying a struggling female leopard to walk past. Cursing loudly one of the orderlies landed several sharp blows upon the cat's twisting torso. Suddenly it made eye contact with agent Liston and snarled loudly despite the muzzle covering its jaws.
"Now... now... Susan! Don't be rude with our guest!" Doctor Measures admonished the bound felinemorph. The sudden look of terror within the Scab's eyes chilled Agent Liston to the bone as the doctor's hand slid down the suddenly motionless head and torso.
"You wouldn't want to have another 'session' with me, would you?" he asks, while tapping his fingers on the plaster cast covering her left front limb.
Agent Liston shuddered as human words begin to emerge from the toothy muzzle.
"SSSSSusan be good! SSSSSusan not animal! SSSSSusan do what doctor ssssay!" the catmorph declared as tears begin to flow from the slit pupiled eyes.
"Good girl!" the Doctor Measures replied as he turned away and ordered, "Put her down. Untie her and remove the muzzle."
"But doctor!" the man who had struck the blows began to protest.
"Put.. her... down! Untie... her... and... remove... the... muzzle!" the Doctor repeated himself in a voice far from his usual bland tones.
Swallowing deeply the man looked at his fellow orderlies and nodded his head. Bending down slowly they deposit the motionless leopard morph on her side. With swift, but careful motions he unbound the restraining straps and removed the wire muzzle. Not once does he remove his eyes from Doctor Measures’ unblinking glaze as he stepped back.
"Get up Susan. Now be a good girl, go to your cell and close the door." Doctor Measures ordered as he continued to stare at the orderly.
With head held low the catmorph raised to all four paws and limps slowly away. Several seconds later she entered an open doorway and turned around. With one final glance in the doctor's direction she rose to her hind feet and took the door knob in her jaws. Backing up slowly, she closed the door until it locked with a soft clicking sound.
Doctor Measures walked forward and jabbed a finger atop the nameplate sewn on the orderly's white jacket. The corridor grew silent as everyone turned to witness the confrontation.
"Err... yes, sir?"
"Who told you to carry and strike my patient like that?"
"No one, sir. We were talking the animal back from x-rays and.."
"Mr. Applewhite... 'that' is not an animal. You will not refer to any of my patients as animals. If you see that green ribbon around their necks you will treat them with the same respect you treat me. Is that understood?"
Is... that... understood?" Doctor Measures repeated in voice so devoid of inflection, it barely sounded human.
"Ah... yes, sir!" the orderly replied, backing up slightly.
"Mr. Applewhite?" the Doctor asked in the same tone.
"Have you ever known me to lie, Mr. Applewhite?"
"Err... no, sir."
"Well, keep this in mind. If I ever catch you mistreating one of my patients again, I will personally feed you to that 'thing' in cell thirteen. Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir! It won't happen... it won't happen again, sir!" the man said repeatedly as all the blood drained from his face, and a look of absolute terror distorted his features.
"Go away, Mr. Applewhite." Doctor Measures ordered in his usual colorless tones.
Without another word the orderly turned and walked away rapidly; his fellow orderlies practically stepping on his heels to follow him. The noise level increased as everyone within earshot suddenly found a reason to be somewhere else.
"Room thirteen?" Agent Liston asked as they start moving forward again.
In a casual voice Doctor Measures replied as if nothing had just happened, "What do you know about the Martian flu, Agent Liston?"
"Well... just about what the average person knows, I guess. That most people living today have been exposed to the disease but are basically immune. And that some people have been genetically altered and that they are prone to turn into some degree of human-animal hybrid."
"That's about right. Since we have a few minutes before my first patient will be ready, lets take a little walk down to room thirteen. You should find the experience... enlightening."
Walking down the middle of the crowded corridor they walked past the nurse's station. A young man in a black security uniform lowered his gaze as they passed. Agent Liston turned to watch as the young man spun a small key in his gloved fingers. The look of despair on the man's face made him uneasy.
"Here we are, Agent Liston." Doctor Measures announced as he removed a magnetic card from his pocket and unlocked the door. As the two guards automatically took flanking positions on either side of the door frame he ordered, "Come in... but don't touch anything."
The cell they enter is nothing like what Agent Liston had expected. No bed, no bars, no chains, and definitely no semi-animal inhabitant. Just a brand new computer siting on top of a scared and burn marred wooden desk.
As he stared directly at the machine the Windows 2001 logo vanished and the scrolling marquee turned on. In bold flashing letters the words 'Press Enter' began to scroll across the screen.
With eyes fixed on the screen, he moved forward. Slowly he raised a hand and began to lower it atop the keyboard. Within inches of the 'enter' key his fingers are knocked aside by a blow from the Doctor's right hand.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you, Agent Liston."
"What... what... what do you mean? I wasn't... I wasn't doing anything." Agent Liston replied as he massaged his stinging fingers. As a complete look of confusion spread over his face he watched as the Windows 2001 logo returned to the screen.
"Don't you remember? You were about to press the Enter key on that 'machine'." Doctor Measures asked while he looked deeply into Agent Liston's slowly refocusing eyes.
"I was? But isn't that what you're suppose to do?" he replied pointing at the monitor. He looked in vain for the words that'd been passing across the screen but moments before.
"Only if you do want 'it' to eat you." Doctor Measures replied and walked around the table.
Not once does he look directly at the screen; only at the table contents and surrounding area. As he passed in front of the desk he reached down and with a single unbroken motion he picked up a small object and tossed it in Agent Liston's direction.
"Think fast... CATCH!" he yells out.
Nearly dropping it twice Agent Liston finally managed to hold onto the brightly colored plastic object.
"Do you know what that is?" Doctor Measures asked in his blandest tones.
"Sure, it's a zip disk. I have tons of them at home." Agent Liston replied, more confused than ever.
"Really? And what do you 'do' with a these zip disks?"
"They're very popular. They're a cheap way to save data and carry it from machine one machine to another."
"Press that one to your ear, Agent Liston." Doctor Measures ordered in the same casual tone of voice.
As Agent Liston complied, Doctor Measures continues to speak. "I've never been much into computers myself... and I probably never will. But tell me, are those 'zip' things supposed to be warm? Are they suppose to make to make the sounds of a human heart beat?"
Agent Liston dropped the disk to the floor and screamed, "IT'S ALIVE!"
Doctor Measures reached down and picked up the cartridge. Looking directly at Agent Liston he bent the plastic diskette slowly. Without breaking, the bright yellow plastic case bent nearly double as if made out of hard leather. As he threw it back onto the desktop, it straightened out and made the sound of flesh hitting wood.
"What 'is' that thing!?" Agent Liston asks as he unconsciously protected himself by putting the Doctor's body between himself and the computer.
"We don't know, frankly." Doctor Measures replie in a pensive tone.
"Last month the police tracked down several missing persons reports to a law office downtown. A total of eight lawyers and four legal secretaries went missing over the span of two days. When two detective teams vanished they called us in to investigate. If our recovery team hadn't been wearing their polarized safety glasses 'it' might've gotten them too."
"But how...?" Agent Listons asked, taking little side glances at the monitor.
With arms clasped behind his back Doctor Measures walked away and beganto circle the desk at a slow measured pace. With a tone of growing irritation he replied to Agent Liston's question.
"Ask me how a two hundred pound policeman can go to bed and wake up as a three inch long gecko. Ask me how a ninety eight pound housewife can turn into a one ton dairy cow in the middle of church services. Ask me how a district court clerk can disappear and this 'thing,'" he points at both the desk and computer, "can show up."
Humming softly to himself the Doctor stopped speaking. With a few swift motions of his huge hands he gathered the scattered zip disks and piled them in a single neat column next to the computer. After a few seconds of silent inspection of his handy work he continues.
"Ask me how sixteen people can enter a room and get turned into living inorganic objects. Or how this 'computer' can work without electrical power" he reached down and showed Agent Liston the unconnected electrical cord, "and I'll have to tell you I don't have a damned clue!"
Still circling the table he rapped his knuckles atop the computer monitor. The Windows logo screen blinks out and the word 'OUCH!!!!" scrolled across the screen. Agent Liston turned his head aside as the words 'Press Enter' begin to move across the screen once more.
Suddenly a voice from outside the room announced, "Hey, Doc! It's me, Tony from maintenance. I've got the stuff you asked for."
"Bring it in, please." the Doctor asked.
"If it's all the same to you, Doc... I'd rather not!" the maintenance man replied.
With a few steps Doctor Measures walked to the open doorway and reached out into the corridor. He returned with a large metal box filled with all manner of tools.
"Yes, Tony?" the Doctor replied as he dug through the tool box and extracted several large hammers.
"Can I have my tools back by tomorrow morning? I've got a cell door to fix."
"Of course, I don't think I'll be needing them past this afternoon." he replied as he rejected several smaller hammers and removed a twenty pound sledge from the box.
"What's 'that' for?" Agent Liston asked, as he watched Doctor Measures swing the heavy hammer with little effort.
"Well, Agent Liston... I have a theory. The hospital engineering staff tells me this 'computer' is generating a considerable amount of electro-magnetic energy. 'How' they don't know, but I have an idea 'why'. " Doctor Measures replied as he walked towards the computer.
"I suspect that this energy is somehow maintaining these people," he pointed the hammer at the zip disks, "in this unique condition. The Martian Flu may still be coming up with new tricks to surprise us, but the odds of sixteen people mutating into exactly the same form must be rather... unlikely."
"As my previous treatments have failed to prompt its co-operation," he waved the hammer like a near weightless yardstick over the gouges and burn marks covering the tabletop, "I'm going to increase the dosage later today."
In a blur of motion the Doctor swung the hammer within an inch of the monitor. The screen flashed white and the computer's hard drive started to grind away. With a flick of his wrist he effortlessly tossed the hammer across the room and back into the toolbox.
Looking down at his wristwatch Doctor Measures announced, "Well, Agent Liston. It's time to see my first patient of the day. Coming?"
As the door closed, the computer faded into silence and two words started to scroll endlessly across the screen , "Oh... Shit!!!!"
Two young women greeted the Doctor in unison as he entered a brightly lit examination room. "Good morning!"
"Good morning, Doctor Stuart. And you too, Nurse Williams. Is that for me?", pointing at the cardboard box in Doctor Stuart's hands.
"Yes, sir. Six newborn kittens. The mother will be here shortly."
"Good... very good. I won't be needing you this morning, Doctor Stuart. You can return to your duties as soon as the patient arrives. Nurse Williams will be all I'll need here for this case."
"Not needed, Doctor? And who is...?" she asked pointing at Agent Liston.
"Doctor Stuart, this is federal Agent Matthew Liston. He'll be assisting me this morning."
"Do you really think that's wise? We don't usually have 'them' down here.
"You needn't worry, Doctor. He won't be a bother... will you Agent Liston?"
"No, sir!" he replied automatically. Somehow the thought of returning alone to Cell Thirteen seemed preferable to 'bothering' Doctor Measures.
All conversations ceased as a large cart was pushed into the center of the room. As it came to a halt, the young orderly pushing it backed up, and exited the room without turning around. The four armed guards, flanking the cart, began a series of motions that was nearly machine-like in their precision.
The rearmost guard jacked a shell into the chamber of a large bore military shotgun and took up a firing position in the open doorway. After releasing the safety, he nodded his head once and froze motionless. His eyes and weapon never wavered from the cart and the object sitting upon it.
The two other guards walked to opposite corners of the room and stopped as they turned around they returned the gesture as they too aimed their mini-machine pistols at the cart. With a slow measured pace, the last guard turned towards the cart and removed a small wire cage. After placing the cage on the floor he handed a metal clipboard and a pen to Doctor Measures which he signed.
Retrieving the signed clipboard the guard snapped his fingers and the orderly walked back into the room. With unhurried motions he pulled the empty cart out of the room and the guards with the clipboard and shotgun soon followed.
The other two guards remained at their posts with the barrels of their guns frozen in the direction of the cage. Doctor Stuart took one last look at Agent Liston and followed the last guard out of the room.
>From entrance to exit the entire sequence took less than two minutes.
The silence was broken as Agent Liston got a clear look at the cage's contents, "Damn... another cat!"
"Like a pet, Agent Liston?" Doctor Measures asked as he turned around and extended the gently meowing box of kittens in his direction. "They're quite safe, I assure you. Almost pure feline with very little human DNA."
Agent Liston backed up and waved his hands frantically in the negative, "No thanks, Doc! I use to love cats, but now they give me a bad case of the screaming willies!"
Doctor Measures took a moment to closely examine Agent Liston's apprehesive features. With a introspective 'hummmm' he turned away and reached downwards.
As the weapon barrels tracked his every move he picked up the cage and sat it atop the metal examination table.
Opening the cage door he removed the limp contents and gently laid it on the shiny metal surface. From a tableside drawer he removed a disposable plastic syringe and injected a small quantity of amber colored fluid into the feline's flank. Tossing the empty cylinder into a trash can he stepped back and sat on a stool with the cardboard box in his lap.
With a slight sigh he announced to no one in particular, "Well... now we wait."
"Wait for what, Doctor?" Agent Liston asked as he stared down at the comatose animal.
Instead of replying Doctor Measures removed a tiny microphone from the same drawer as the syringe and clipped it onto his lapel. In the toneless voice of someone dictating a routine interoffice memo, he stated his name and began to speak in a loud voice.
"Date, November 12th, 2002. Case number 2002-2311-F. Subject Kim Osterman, housewife, age thirty six. Wife of Mr. Tony Osterman and mother of two. Subject underwent physical transformation before witnesses on May 3rd 2002. During early morning hours the victim complained of headache and muscular pains."
"Transformation began shortly before dawn and lasted for approximately six hours. Final morphic state is of extreme degree with no apparent human mentation remaining. Estimated lifespan in this advanced morphic state approximately six to eight years. Subject's appearance is that of a very large feline of the abyssinian family."
Doctor Measures reached out and gently pinched the furry throat between two large fingers. Satisfied that the expected revival was still minutes away he gently smoothed down the ruffled fur and the red ribbon tied around the feline's throat. After a moment of silence he continued to dictate into the tiny microphone.
"Subject caused severe lacerations to spouse's face as he attempted to confine her within their apartment. Subject escaped capture and was feared permanently lost. Subject is suspect in several alleged nighttime attacks upon nearby residents. Recovery crew 'Charlie's Angels' captured subject on November first and received standard fee of five thousand dollars..."
"Five thousand dollars!" Agent Liston exclaimed suddenly, "I thought you guys were broke! Where'd you get all that money...?"
Doctor Measures stopped speaking just long enough to stare at Agent Liston. Whatever else he was going to say suddenly froze in his throat as he turned back around and resumed dictating.
"... payable from 'donation' fund. DNA tests confirmed patient's identity and usual release forms were obtained from closest relatives. Patient was subject to standard battery of treatment protocols by Doctors Stuart and Yamoto, outcome... unfavorable."
"No sentient behavior observed over course of treatment. Subject's advanced gravid state was allowed to run to term, and a litter of six viable animal norm offspring were born a week ago. Maternal bonding was encouraged and has become well established by this date. Extreme protocol measures to commence when subject awakens from tranquilized state." He reached up and turned off the microphone While looking down at the box of squirming kittens he called out.
"Nurse, please help Agent Liston suit up and bring me my medical case."
With a minimum of wasted motions, the nurse crossed the room and unlocked a large cabinet. Turning around, she gestured for Agent Liston to come forward. As he complied she extracted two shiny aluminum cases. One she deposits at his feet, the other she carried across the room and placed atop the examination table.
Turning around she walked back to the first container and unlocked it. Reaching inside she removed a black kevlar jacket, a pair of black kevlar gloves, and a clear plastic face shield. After helping Agent Liston don the unfamiliar items she guided him back to the head of the table. As he began to sweat under the heavy protective clothing, he watched as Doctor Measures extracted but two items from the metal case before him. The first was a pair of plastic safety glasses, the other, a strange looking pair of hide gloves.
Doctor Measures noted the look of interest in his eyes and said, "Like these?", while wiggling his gloved fingers in Agent Liston's direction.
"What are those things made of? That's like no kind of leather l've ever seen before."
The Doctor repeatedly flexed his fingers. The heavily textured material creaked with each motion as looked down at his hands and began to speak as if to himself. "These were a gift from ... a gift from long ago, Agent Liston. She always hated how I scratched my hands bloody while I helped her weed the flower garden. These gloves were going to be her gift to me on our first anniversery but..." the Doctor stopped in mid sentence, his face becoming as rigid as the animal skin covering his hands.
"She had 'these' custom made out of Nile Crocodile hide. Its only been a year, but it seems like such a long time... a long time ago."
After a moment of silence he continued.
"I don't think she'd ever forgive me for how I use them now or..."
Doctor Measures stopped speaking abruptly as the feline figure streched atop the table started to move, its fang filled jaws beginning to gape wildly as it starts gasping loudly for air.
With a tiny nod of his head he gestured at the nurse, as she promptly donned her own pair of gloves and picked up the reviving feline. Walking but few steps forward she handed the large cat to agent Liston and ordered. "Whatever you do, don't let go! Keep her head oriented towards the Doctor. If she closes her eyes do whatever it takes to force them open. If the Doctor yells 'safety one' drop her and jump to the side. The soldiers have orders to destroy any multimorphic or variablemorphic that hasn't been certified safe. If you're in the way..."
She shrugged her shoulders and returned to the Doctor's side. Within seconds of her departure a pair of golden yellow eyes snapped open. Space black, slitted pupils locked on the tiny bundle of fur held within one the Doctor's hands.
"Good morning, Kim! And look who I brought to see you!"
With a large hiss, the feline torso started to squirm and twist within agent Liston's grasp. Cursing under his breath, he just barely managed to maintain his grip. All four clawed paws slashed at the gloves repeatedly but failed to penetrate the puncture resistant material.
"Now that wasn't very nice, Kim! Is that anyway for a mother to act in front of her newborn?"
The Doctor's thumb pressed down gently atop the kitten's head, a hungry meow escaped the tiny jaws and the large feline resumed her violent motions for a few more seconds.
"Now I know you're in there somewhere, Kim." he started to say in a soothing neutral tone. "I know you're afraid, but we want you to come back. Yes, Kim... we all want you back. Tony and the children are upstairs waiting to see you. They want you to come home."
"What happened was not your fault and you did nothing wrong. They love you, Kim. They want you back no matter what you look like. Your children need you. Tony needs you. You've been very sick and the cat is keeping you from waking up. Fight the cat, Kim."
He stopped talking and looked deep within the golden orbs that ignored his gaze. They just continued to flicker mindlessly as the his right hand waved the kitten before her. With a little sigh of regret he began to speak again, his tone now a flat unemotional monotone of command.
"Talk to the cat, Kim. She might not understand my words but I know she can hear your feelings. Tell her I'm not like the other Doctors. Tell her I won't let her hold you prisoner anymore and I won't give up. Tell her you want to be free, Kim. Tell her I will keep doing this until she lets you come back to us."
With glacier slowness the gloved hand began to close. A single strident meow escapes the closing fingers as the air was crushed out of a pair of tiny lungs. This final scream of agony was followed by a nearly inaudible series of crackling sounds as the spine failed and ribs were crushed flat. Drop by drop, a small red puddle began to grow upon the tiled floor, the sound of each drop blending with the hissing screams of the frantic mother.
"FUCK...!" Agent Liston screamed as the cat went wild within his hands.
"Hold her still!" nurse Williams ordered as the guards moved forward and reestablished their aim.
Noting that their guns were pointed straight at his chest, agent Liston redoubled his efforts to maintain his hold on the frantic animal. Exhausted she grew still once again.
Maintaining his gaze on the motionless feline, Doctor Measures extended his arm straight out and opened his fist. A tiny scrap of blood soaked fur fell into the puddle as he turned and removed yet another kitten from the box on table. The kitten started to meow immeadiately in distress as it became covered with the blood of its dead sibling. With the same tone the Doctor began again.
"Fight the cat, Kim. Wake up and look for the way out. Find the cat's mind and join with it. You are one and the same now but she is only instinct. You are human and your mind is infinitely stronger... your will is stronger than any animal's. You can win if you'll only try. Find her, Kim. Tell her that only you can save her kittens."
Once again the massive fingers began to tighten. Yet another tiny kitten began to call out in agony for its mother.
"God damn it!" Agent Liston yelled in pain as his knees buckled and he began to fall forward onto the floor.
Without warning, the animal within his grasp began to stretch and expand. In a matter of seconds he was wrestling with a shivering human sized female figure. Only a flush layer of golden fur remained to cover the nearly human proportioned limbs and torso.
Trembling paw-like hands reached out towards the crying kitten as tears rolled down a vaguely feline face. Thin black lips parted over white fangs as they soundlessly pantomimed the words, 'Please... please... please...,' and a long tail whipped around in distress.
After returning the wailing kitten to the box, Doctor Measures raised from his chair and dropped it within the clawed fingers. Instantly her blunt muzzle was thrust into the box and a rough tongue began to lick them clean of his scent.
While she was occupied with this instinctual task, the Doctor reached into his pocket and extracted a long green ribbon. The felinemorph never even looked up as he removed the red ribbon and tied the green one around her throat. After a few seconds of silent inspection the Doctor called out.
"Yes, Doctor Measures."
"Please take Mrs. Osterman upstairs to rehab. After you've cleaned her up let her family see her for five minutes. Tell Mr. Osterman to call my office tomorrow morning around nine. I should be able to give him an estimated time for her release by then."
"Of course, Doctor." the nurse answered as she walked behind agent Liston and tapped him on the shoulder.
Agent Liston suddenly became aware of his surroundings and realizing that his hands were still cupped around the naked catmorph's bare torso, he jerked his arms apart and tried to stand up. The guards started laughing as the abrupt change in posture, as the heavy protective clothing, made him fall painfully onto his rear.
Throwing a blanket over the cat morphs trembling shoulders, the nurse helped her rise to her clawed feet. Walking slowly, the nurse guides her out of the room as the armed guards follow but a few paces behind. As the group passes the Doctor he leaned forward and whispered softly into one of the cat woman's pointed ears.
"Goodbye, Mrs. Osterman. Oh... and cat, if you can still hear me in there somewhere, take care that we don't meet again. I won't be as gentle next time."
He tapped the side of the box with a forefinger.
The muzzled lips parted and a terrified feline hiss burst forth. Clasping the cardboard box to her busom the catmorph quickened her pace and raced from the room.
Doctor Measures returned to the table and removed a towel to clean his gloved hands. After removing his safety glasses he used the blood drenched cloth to pick up the crushed remains off the floor. As he tossed the cloth into the trash, agent Liston started screaming in fury from across the room.
"You fucking bastard! You heartless piece of shit! How dare you torture people like that?! You should never be allowed to..."
The last sentence was never finished. With a speed seemingly impossible for a man of his size, the Doctor was suddenly pushing him against a wall with a single hand. In less than a second agent Liston was feeling the same pain that the kitten had experienced just before death.
Despite all the protective padding, he could feel the ribs in his chest bending to the breaking point. Unable to draw a single breath he could only watch as the Doctor tore the shield off his face. The emotionless eyes of a corpse stared into his face as the Doctor started to speak.
"Do you recall what you said in my office, agent Liston?" Doctor Measures asked as he maintained the pressure effortlessly.
Agent Liston tried to respond, but the amount of air entering his heaving lungs was insufficient to make more that a single retching hiss. Noticing the lack of response Doctor Measures released the pressure just enough for agent Liston to draw in a few shallow breaths before asking again.
"I said... 'do you recall what you said in my office'?"
"About... about what?" agent Liston finally managed to reply as his purple face slowly returned to a nearly normal pink hue.
Looking up at the ceiling he began to recite from memory, "You have the highest success rate in the city, if not the country, for bringing these people back to some type of sentience. And that's regardless of their morph type or degree. How you do it is up to you. We 'must' have agent Lupus back!"
"Did I leave anything out?" Doctor Measures asked in a casual tone.
"No... you didn't...!" Agent Liston replied as he looked down. He'd just noticed that his feet were no longer touching the floor.
"Well I got news for you. 'This' is how I do it. There are no AMA approved treatments... no sanctioned medical protocols... no review boards that I can call for guidance to help my patients.
Freud never had to psychoanalyze a patient that was more mule than human. Jun never had to tell a grieving a wife that her husband would probably be a mindless rabbit forever, and Adler didn't see what was left of his wife die in palms of his two hands!"
Agent Liston grunted in pain as Doctor Measures emphasized each name by pressing harder against his chest. Suddenly the Doctor's wristwatch chimed an alarm and he stepped away from the wall.
Unsupported, agent Liston falls to his knees retching and gagging as he tried to draw breath into his flattened lungs. Staggering to his feet he found the Doctor standing perfectly still, but a foot from the open doorway.
"Are you coming, agent Liston?" he asked as if the last few minutes had never occurred. "It's time for my next patient." He exited the room without once looking back to see if agent Liston was following.
"BINGO!" the voder 'voice' of Kim called out from behind the laptop's glowing monitor. "I found him!"
"Well, Kim? Don't keep us in suspense." Frank asked from the darkness closer to the caninemorph's chair.
In the jerky tones of someone reading from a rapidly scrolling column of text she replied.
"Mr. Thomas Leonard Moholland, age 47. Husband of Lisa Moholland and father of three. Graduated from Yale University 2005, corporate law major. Passed bar exam in 2006 and joined the law office of Liverwith, Howard, and Polito in 2007 as a junior member."
"Became sole surviving member after all other members died during unexplained ocean fishing trip in 2008. Used office assets to finance unsuccesful campaign for city councilman in 2008 and 2012. Was instrumental in organizing the electoral campaigns of... DAMN, DAMN, DAMN!"
"What is it, Kim?"
"Listen to this Frank!", she replies as she starts reading aloud again.
"...acted as legal consul to the election campaigns of State Senator Van der Walls and Councilman Robert Atwell Barnes. Unconfirmed rumors report him to be a founding member of the Humans First chapter within the state and..."
"'Friend' of yours, Frank?" the caninemorph interrupted in an irreverent tone.
"OSCAR!" Frank yelled back in anger.
Suddenly the caninemorph was standing straight up, his clawed toes barely scratching the floor as Oscar pulled the chain high above his head.
"You will not talk to me in that tone again, Mr. Phillips! Do you understand?!"
"Yesssss, I unddderssstand! <raking cough>. I won't doooo it agggain! <retching gasp>," He barely managed to reply while trying to take the weight off his neck, by holding onto the collar with both paws.
"Let him go, Oscar."
"Oscar, please let him go."
"Oscar, please let him go...for me."
"Okay, but can I have some fun with him before...?"
"Of course, Oscar. Be my guest."
Without warning, the chain was released and he fell back heavily onto the wooden chair.
"And to answer to your question... no. He is not any friend of mine. Now tell me, what exactly was Mr. Moholland looking for in those old files?"
"How the Hell should I know?!" the caninemorph managed to reply while massaging his throat. "He just told me to check the old census records against the government databases, and that I should report any anomalies to him."
"That's odd... don't you think? What's wrong with the network?"
"He said that the network had been compromised. That I should only use the paper's old computer archives. You know... the old tapes in the vault."
"Sounds kind of paranoid, doesn't it?" Frank replied in a humorous tone.
"It wasn't! Mr. Moholland was right! It was very subtle but the government records are all screwed up.
"You don't say? In what way are they 'all screwed up,' Mr. Phillips?"
"The current population projections simply don't match with the old records. There's been an undercount since 2003, and now it's even worse. Tens of thousands of people are unaccounted for. The mortality figures simply don't match the known deaths, and the figures from the crematoriums and mass graves were even worse."
"Was that all?"
"Hell, no! Even banking records had been altered. There's not telling how many millions were emptied from flu victim's accounts. Somehow those accounts were emptied long after the owners were reported dead!"
"And you got all this from the old computer files?"
"Yup... the National Inquisitor's vault is full of this dusty old stuff. Most of it was just downloaded and forgotten. After the riots shut down the major papers, the little ones just keep going by working over the net. That is, they did until AOL's main servers got fire bombed in late 2002. 'That's' when the crazies started blaming the news media for conspiring with 'space aliens' to spread the sickness."
"The nutcases started dynamiting downlink stations and cutting down telephone poles to isolate themselves from possible 'contamination.' But the last straw was caused by the collapse of the international satellite phone relays. When they started to go down the major network providers just went nuts. They, and almost everyone else, started dumping everything they had on the net in panic."
"What exactly did they send, Mr. Phillips?"
"You name it and it’s somewhere in that mess. State government agencies started uploading census and tax files. The fortune 100 companies sent their secret product patents and trademark files. Hell... every church on the planet started sending scanning and uploading every piece of paper with the word 'God' on it!"
"They all thought civilization was coming to an end, and that this'd be their last chance to have send their data someplace safe. They wanted to guarantee its survival in case civilization collapsed. That way they'd be able to recover it whenever the plague burned itself out." But it was too late by then, only a few private newservices still had functional satellite downlinks or the storage capacity to hold even a tiny fraction of this stuff."
"And you read all this 'stuff'?"
"Not likely! There must be 150 or 200 terrabytes of magnetic tapes in that room. Someone must've spent months down there recording hundreds of reels full before the satellite dish on the roof got shot up. I just scanned a few tapes marked 'government' and 'national intelligence service'."
"Are those tapes the only ones you examined, Mr. Phillips?"
"Mostly... but I did read a few buisness files at random and learned some pretty interesting secrets."
"It's can be of no interest to you. It's something I've only told a couple caninemorphs I meet by accident on the internet."
The chain is suddenly jerked causing the caninemorph's head to swing back and forth violently.
"Damn it! Okay... okay, I'll tell you! And I hope you choke on it! I found Purina Pet Chow's secret recipe for Salsa flavored Kibble and Bits!"
"Yuck... I'm so happy for you! But tell me, so what happened when you reported all of this to your new boss?"
"I... err, I didn't tell him everything; just a little bit here and there. But he almost wet himself when I mentioned the Doctor Measure's name. Suddenly he didn't care that I'd spent weeks running around the city locating parts for that old magnetic tape reader. Or how much time I spent cleaning those moldy reels."
"And why not? He was paying you to go through those old files."
"Well, I heard him on the phone about a month after I started. He was talking and laughing to someone long distance and..."
"He was telling him that I'd finally found the target. That they should close down all the other search parties get ready to come down here."
"Yes, that's what he'd said."
"Do you have any idea what he was talking about?"
"I'm not sure, but I think he was talking about the Doctor. And I think it had something to do with Senator Morris."
"'The' Senator Morris? Senator Mike Morris of the Senate Security Oversight Committee?"
"That's the only one I know."
"One moment... Kim?"
"Send an E-Mail to Howard in Washington, apprise him in reference to our current situation, and tell him we'll be needing his services again."
"No problem." Kim answered over the soft clicking sounds of a computer keyboard.
"Okay, Mr. Phillips. Lets get back to you. Do you have any idea why a rabble rousing, anti-Scab senator would want anything to do with those files?"
"I don't know, but I had to work fast."
"Why's that? You were down there for months. Why did you have to suddenly 'work fast'?"
"They were going to close the vault again! Mr. Moholland wanted me to lock it up and give him transcripts of all the data I found!"
"So what's so bad about that?"
"That was my work! I worked damned hard researching this story! If this 'Doctor Measures' is so damned important 'I' deserve to get the byline by exposing him!"
"Let me get this straight. You got into this mess trying to beat your employer to a story? You went through all this trouble just to get your name in the paper?"
"That's what I do! I'm a reporter!"
"Son... you're about ten minutes away from becoming meat by-products in a friggin' can! Just keep reading!"
Shedding the heavy protective clothing as fast as he could, Agent Liston raced out of the room. He almost crashed into the Doctor's back as he stood speaking with a group of other white clad figures just a few yards outside the room. Gasping for breath he stepped back and listened in to their conversation.
"Are you ready to proceed, Doctor Barker?" Doctor Measures asked as he turned to look through a glass window mounted on the cell door before him.
"Yes, Doctor Measures. I'm ready to start the recovery methodology you approved yesterday."
"Excellent. Guards, please assume your posts."
Two heavily armed guards approached from opposite sides of the corridor and took up firing positions nearby.
"Okay, people... this is Doctor Barker's first solo recovery attempt. Please observe closely and feel free to take notes. You will all have to pass this skill level to complete your residency at Mercy General."
Doctor Measures stepped aside and pointed at the glass window, "Agent Liston?"
"Would you care to look inside before we start... hmmmm?"
Fearing the worse, agent Liston walked forward. Within seconds he's looking at a scene from any housewife's worst nightmare. Dozens of coackroaches are crawling on every visible surface. The insects are either milling around randomly in search of a hiding place, or are feeding at one of the many dishes of rotten fruit scattered around the room.
"That's... that's... disgusting!" Agent Liston finally exclaimed as he looked in every possible direction for the missing plague victim. "Get the patient out of there!"
"To whom do you refer, Agent Liston?"
"You know what I'm taking about! The patient that you're hiding in that Hellhole!"
Stepping back to the window, Doctor Measures began to point at different areas of the room.
"Hummm... maybe that's him on the ceiling? No... maybe that's him in the corner? Oops, sorry... isn't that be him crawling up the wall? Nah, that's not right. Maybe that's him eating the mashed tomato slices? Yes, that one looks a likely candidate..."
Agent Liston stepped away from the door as far as the corridor's width would permit. His face contorted in nausea as he closed his eyes. But, try as hard as he could, he found it impossible to erase the mental image of the Doctor pointing into the room full of crawling insects. He opened his eyes several seconds later to find the Doctor standing but inches away.
"Anything wrong, Agent Liston?"
"Insects...!? Roaches...!? The patient is a...!?"
"Let me guess, Agent Liston. With the exception of your late furry feline friend, you haven't had much contact with 'extreme' cases... have you?"
Agent Liston's mouth just opened and closed spastically. If his life had depended on it he couldn't have created an audible response.
"Are you asking if the patient is one of those roaches, Agent Liston? Or are you about to turn into a catfish?"
"Is he in...?!" he croaked back, his dry throat not letting him say more than a few words.
"Well... we're pretty sure," Doctor Measures replied as he turned around and looked at the group of waiting Doctors, "but maybe you should just watch Doctor Barker at work."
"Okay, Doctor Barker... proceed." He commanded as he to stepped across the corridor and waved the young Doctor forward. Slightly self-concious of all the attention, Doctor Barker reached into his pocket and extracted a small tape recorder.
"Doctor... err, Doctor Samuel Barker, date, November 12th, 2002. Case number 24342-2002-I. Plague victim, Thomas P. Harris, age 17. Victim underwent low to mid degree insectile transformation during high school lunch break on November 4th."
"Victim vanished during ensuing riot as other students fled in panic. Later examination of security video showed victim gesturing hysterically as he continued morphing down to norm insect level and disappeared from view underneath a table."
"On November 5th, recovery crew 'Wild Weasels' was hired by victim's parents to attempt capture. Using standard safe-capture methodology they sealed off the school cafeteria with plastic sheeting and flooded the space with carbon dioxide. Thirty nine live and twenty nine deceased cochroaches of various species where obtained from underneath cafeteria equipment and behind wall paneling. The common Oriental cockroach, Blattidae Orientalis, being the species counted in the greatest numbers."
"Standard DNA matching were deemed too hazardous to apply to living specimens by laboratory staff. Excessive handling and tissue sampling at this size level has often resulted in the death or permanent injury to the tested subject."
"As we've been unable to separate the victim from the other captured specimens, 'all' recovered specimens were subject to standard treatment protocols with negligible results. Extreme measures were authorized by the hospital administrator and Doctor Measures on November 10th."
Doctor Barker pocketed the recorder and walked a few paces down the corridor. From a wheeled cart he removed an unlabeled grey cylinder and began walking back to the door where he plugged in a small microphone into a wall socket and began to speak.
"GOOD MORNING, TOMMY! MY NAME IS DOCTOR BARKER! DO YOU REMEMBER ME!?"
His amplified voice vibrated the walls and floor, causing most of the insects to race around the room in panic. Silently mouthing the words 'damn damn damn' to himself, he adjusted a small knob on the microphone. After waiting a few minutes for the majority of the scurrying insects to settle down, he started speaking again at a much reduced volume.
"I'm here to help you, Tommy. We have little time left. You must come back to us soon! Your parents are very worried about you. Your friends from school miss you. It must be unpleasant being so small. Just think how much better it'll be to return to your normal size..."
As Doctor Barker's voice droned on agent Liston leaned over and quietly asked Doctor Measures, "Why is time short?"
Without taking his eyes off Doctor Barker he replied, "We're going to lose around fifteen percent of the specimens in that room each week, agent Liston. Sooner or later the odds will catch up with that youngster. Within a month or two he'll probably live out the normal lifespan of a roach and die of natural causes. And 'that' presupposes that he's even in there."
"But what happens if..." Agent Liston asks.
Shaking his head slightly, Doctor Measure momentarily raised a finger to his lips and then pointed it at Doctor Barker.
"Look around, Tommy. Don't you want to get away from them? Don't you want to be safe again! Just come to the door and I'll get you out of there! We... can... help... YOU!"
His voice cracking with emotion, Doctor Barker lowered the microphone and stops speaking. Silently he turned his head in Doctor Measures' direction. A blank stare and a heavy head nod was his only reply.
"You're forcing me to do something I don't want to do, Tommy!" Looking down at the metal cylinder in his hand, Doctor Barker pressed the button on top and opened the door. With an underhand throw he tossed the can deep into the room and slams the door shut. He's nearly screaming as the metal can bounced off the wall and began to bellow a heavy white smoke.
"THAT'S INSECT POISON, TOMMY! IF YOU'RE NOT OUT OF THAT ROOM IN FIVE MINUTES YOU'RE... GOING... TO... DIE!!! WE'LL BE SENDING WHAT'S LEFT OF YOU BACK TO YOUR FOLKS IN A MATCH BOX!!!"
Repeatedly, and with growing desperation, Doctor Barker yelled the same words into the microphone as the minutes pass. With ever increasing emotion he screamed as the five minute mark is reached and them passed. In defeat Doctor Barker grew silent, the microphone dropping to the floor as Doctor Measures walked towards the door and laid a comforting hand on his shoulder.
"I'm sorry, Sam. It was a good attempt. It should've worked..." he began to console the despondent Doctor as he turned to look through the window.
Suddenly he grew as rigid as a statue. Instead of the unmoving carpet of dead insect bodies he'd expected to see, he found the room seething with panicked insects crawling unaffected through the fog.
"WHAT DID YOU DO?!" he yelled in anger as he turned to face Doctor Barker.
Stumbling over his words, Doctor Barker replied, "I... I couldn't see why we had to use real... real poison. I had the lab staff work up a can filled with carbon dioxide and... and caulk dust. That way we could always try again and..."
"You bloody idiot!" Doctor Measures replied, not letting him finish. "There's never a 'next time!'"
Pushing Doctor Barker away, Doctor Measures yanked the door open and slammed it shut behind him. Within seconds the crowd outside the door can hear and see him crushing the roaches under his shoes and hands. Blow after blow vibrates the floor under their feet as he squashes the fleeing insects.
As the number of living roaches fall to just a handful, a glowing light began to surround a small roach standing motionless in the center of the room. Within seconds the light flares to a steady glare as the tiny brown insect began to expand upwards into the rough size of a young teenager. In less than a minute, a short stature mid degree insectoid morph is screaming incoherently in fear at Doctor Measures.
Reflexively, two pairs of chitin covered arms and hands are placed over compound eyes in a protective gesture as long antennae lash back and forth. Screaming for his parents, the insectmorph backed away into a corner on clawed feet and curled into as tight a ball as his shell covered body could allow.
Doctor Measures stood nearby silently, his chest bearly moving for all the exertion he'd just undergone. After several seconds of quiet inspection he turned and opened the door. Gesturing towards Doctor Barker he ordered, "Get in here."
"Yes... yes, Doctor Measures?" Doctor Barker inquired as he fearfully entered the room.
"Take Mr. Harris to recovery. Stay with him and don't let him go to sleep. Give him as much sugar water as he wants, but don't let him eat anything solid until after he's given a full C.A.T scan."
"Of course, Doctor. Right away!" Doctor Barker replied as he lifted the screaming insectmorph off the floor and began to carry him out the door.
"Yes, Doctor Measures?"
"What possessed you to change the treatment protocols I gave you!? This is not some damned 'game' and these people don't get many second chances. How did you ever expect to fool an real insect or even an insect morph with caulk? That kid's higher brain functions may've been reduced, but he can damn sure smell poison a million times better than you can."
"See me tomorrow in my office. The hospital administrator is going to have to re-evaluate your residency at Mercy General."
"I'm sorry... I understand. It won't happen again, Doctor."
"See that it doesn't, Doctor Barker. Now go take care of your patient... and take those guards and other residents with you."
As Doctor Barker walked past him, Agent Liston entered the doorway. He found Doctor Measures standing with his back to the door deep in thought. The only sound was the rhythmic creaking of leather as his gloved hands slowly opened and closed. The few insects that survived his attack were either crawling amongst the crushed remains of their brethen or attempting to leave via the open door.
"What is it, Agent Liston? Is it time already for another one of your snide remarks?" he replied in a neutral but razor edged tone.
"Ah... Ah... no, sir. What happened here?" he asked, as he looked about the room.
"A near terminal case of wishful thinking."
"I'm sorry, Doctor. I don't quite understand what you..."
"Did you see that youngster, Agent Liston?"
"Yes, Agent Liston... the roachkid."
"That young man almost died here. A stupid mistake and a lack of courage almost doomed him to an insect's miserable existence and short lifespan."
"But I saw what Doctor Barker did!" Agent Liston began to protest. "Wasn't that exactly what you did before with the cat?"
"No... not even close." Doctor Measures replied in a tired voice as he turned around and wiped his palms together to remove the insect gore covering his gloves.
"The vast majority of the patients down here are trapped insides their mutated bodies, Agent Liston. Like doomed passengers on a sinking ship, they can only look out of their new eyes helplessly as their minds slowly rots away to nothing."
"That kid probably heard every word that Doctor Barker said, but he wasn't driven to overpower the insect's instincts until 'I' forced them both to panic."
"But you must've known which one he was," Agent Liston replied in protest, "how else would you keep from squashing him?!"
"Are you sure about that?" Doctor Measures asked as he walked around the room kicking the dead insects aside.
"Do you know that roaches don't need a brain to flee from a source of danger? A simple reflex causes them to flee whenever they sense a gust of air moving over their body hairs. A real roach would've started moving long before I struck it's body."
"Was that what you were doing, Doctor?"
"Maybe. Maybe I was just guessing that the conflict between his human mind and his roach's instincts would cause him to freeze up. Maybe I was just squashing the roaches that were moving the fastest."
"But what's the rush?! Couldn't you have just scared him some other day with the same bug bomb? Couldn't you have just keep doing it until it works?"
"These patients aren't dumb animals, agent Liston. It may seem otherwise, but their animal minds have full use of their human side. The memories... the vast storage of knowledge and individual experiences contained in every human brain.... are fully accessible to the creatures they've become on an instinctual level."
"Any attempt to draw the 'human' side of their minds to the surface must succeed on the first try. The 'animal' part must be forced to relinquish control just long enough for the transfer to occur. Otherwise it will remember what happened before and ignore any similar attempt."
"In short... no. Very rarely can you just 'keep doing it until it works'.
"But it worked didn't it? You brought him back didn't you?"
"Yes, Agent Liston. I 'brought him back'." Doctor Measures replied in a resigned tone.
"So what's so bad...?"
"Did you take a good look at him? A 'real' good look? Do you think he, or his family, is going to thank me for what I've just done?"
"It probably doesn't matter. By tomorrow it's likely he won't even remember me. Most extreme cases have problems with short term memory for days after recovery. I'm probably just destined to become another faceless monster in that youngster's nightmares forever."
"In a few minutes Doctor Barker is going to call his parents down here to see their son. Who do you think is going to be more shocked? The young man who's going to see 'that' face in the mirror for the rest of his life, or the parents that will have to decide if they want to take 'it' home?"
"Well... Agent Liston? No snappy remarks? No off-the-cuff comments?" Doctor Measures inquired as he straightened and brushed off his white lab coat.
"I... I... don't know, Doctor. It all depends on what they think of bugs I suppose."
"Congratulations! I finally think your getting the idea!" Doctor Measures announced as he offered his right hand in a friendly gesture. Automatically, Agent Liston returned the gesture and grasped the gloved hand. Still shaking hands the Doctor continues speaking.
"Hummm... you're right of course. It 'does' depend on what they think about bugs... doesn't it?"
Releasing his grasp Doctor Measures turned away and walked rapidly through the doorway. Several seconds later his normally rigid features bend slightly into a small smile as a loud scream fills the corridor behind him.
Agent Liston had just discovered the large roach that he'd left in his hand.
"Very funny, Mr. Phillips! I particularly enjoyed the last scene."
"Yeah, right. Both of you probably went to the same kindergarden!"
Not expecting an answer the caninemorph was surprised to hear, "College actually. I meet him once just before he got his third Ph.d. Absolutely brilliant! I even meet the beautiful woman that..."
[sound of deeply drawn breath]
"... yes, I even meet his fiance before they got married. That was only a couple of years before the plague."
"What was he like? Did you have any warning that he'd go nutso someday?"
"Ah... Mr. Phillips! Reporter to the last! Your newspaper would be so proud of you! To think that you're spending your last moments..."
"Yes, Kim? You've got something for me already?"
"That's a 'Roger' on that, Top Dog!"
"Please don't call me that! It makes me sound like a cartoon character! If I ever find the joker that started that damned nickname...!"
"Okay, Frank, I'm sorry!" Kim replied giggling lightly. "Howard just called back from Washington. His sources say that there's been a shakeup in the Human's First hierarchy. The word is that someone is promising a massive source of new funds."
"Where from? That bunch couldn't organize a bake sale. Without Barne's and Walls' political war chests those morons couldn't rub two nickels together."
"Howard didn't say. So he left the safehouse and rounded up a couple to ask in person. But it seems the HF's resisted his questioning and suddenly developed severe breathing problems."
"What kind, Kim?"
"He didn't say, but I don't think they're doing 'it' anymore!" she replies in a humorous tone.
Once again the pitch black room rings with laughter.
"Oh, well," Frank replied in an equally humorous tone, "it seems that Howard has lowered the shallow end of gene pool a couple inches again! Tell him to keep at it. I've a good idea where they 'think' the money is going to come from, but I'd like to be sure."
"You got it, Top...err, Frank!" Kim replied, still giggling as the keyboard started clicking away in the darkness.
<sounds of a low sigh and mumbled complaint>
"No respect! I'm getting too old for this! Let someone else take care of the next nosy busybody!"
"What the heck are you smiling at, Alpo Breath?! Start reading!"
Nearly out of breath, Agent Liston raced at full speed down the crowded corridor. His unbuttoned jacket flapped in the wind as he attempted to straighten his rumpled white shirt and black tie. He'd just spent the last few minutes jumping around before successfully removing an overly curious cockroach from under his clothing.
Rounding a corner he found Doctor Measures ending a conversation with at white clad male nurse at the far end of the corridor.
"Did you feed him for the trip?"
"Yes, Doctor. A large salmon and three oysters. I personally stuffed his daily vitamin dose inside the fish."
"Good work, you can go now."
To Agent Liston's confusion Doctor Measures continued talking seemingly to himself. It's only after he walked closer that he can see the large furry creature cradled within the Doctor's arms.
"You have no one to blame but yourself. What you did was reckless and inexcusable. How you ever got pass psyche evaluation is beyond me. Just look at yourself."
The high degree ottermorph responded with a long series of apologetic sounding chirps and whistles as its elongated body moved sluggishly within the Doctor's arms. It was obvious that the swollen mid section of its body was causing a considerable amount of discomfort.
"Ah... there you are!" Doctor Measures exclaimed as Agent Liston came closer and begins to examine the groaning creature.
"What's that? Don't tell me it's another cat!" He asked extending a finger that nearly touches the black leathery nose. He jerked it away as a set of large white teeth nearly shear it off.
"Mind your manners or it's back to your 'friends' in the zoo!" Doctor Measures exclaimed while pressing a finger gently into the distended stomach.
The ottermorph emitted a long whistle and bent its body nearly into a ball. The long furry tail completely covered its head as even more pained moans escaped the blunt muzzle. Several seconds later it relaxed and began to chirp softly as the front paws reached down to rub the swollen stomach.
"'That, Agent Liston, use to be a rather eccentric young lab technician who let his 'hobby' get the best of him. He was a patient here for a time but now he's mostly the ward mascot."
"You're keeping a flu victim as a mascot?"
"Well... not really a mascot. More like a clinical test subject. He was one of our most valued lab techs until a few months ago. In fact, he almost single handedly organized our DNA testing laboratory when we first opened up."
"So what happened? He turned into a giant water rat and you got tired of torturing him?"
The Doctor didn’t even look up as he replied, "You just don't know when to quit pushing, do you?"
The Doctor's gloved hand continued to gently smooth the plush fur on the long torso and even longer tail. After several seconds of silence he looked up and began to speak again.
"And, for your information, he's a very high degree North American River Otter, or Lutra canadensis if you'd like the Latin name."
Bending closer Agent Liston tried to look into the morph's eyes as he asked, "Is he still in there somewhere? Or is he just as dumb as he looks?"
Agent Liston stared curiously as a long tongue slowly emerged from the blunt muzzle. Bending nearer, he realized that he was far too close to avoid the loud Bronx cheer and spray of fish reeking saliva.
"Okay, that'll be enough of that! Agent Liston was only asking a question! And after what you did to yourself you have no call to be insulted."
"Yuck!", Agent Liston exclaimed while wiping the foul smelling spit off his face with a handkerchief. Cursing under his breath he mumbled, "If it wasn't my job to protect that damned thing, I'd have a new set of ear muffs for Christmas!"
"You say something, Agent Liston?" Doctor Measures inquired. The tone of his voice making it obvious that he was enjoying the agent's discomfort.
"No... nothing, Doctor. But didn't you say you had only two patients to treat this morning?"
"Oh, he's not being treated by me anymore. He's about as recovered as he's going to get I'm afraid. Doctor Grolier and the staff at the city zoo are currently tending to his medical needs. In fact, Doctor Grolier should be here..."
<a loud electronic chime goes off three times>
"Calling Doctor Measures. Calling Doctor Measures. Please respond." A sweet female voice calls down from an overhead loud speaker.
"Yes, Nurse Mattels?" the Doctor replied in a loud voice.
"Zoo director Skinner and Doctor Grolier are here. Should I send an orderly to pick up the ottermorph?"
"Don't bother. He's with me and we're both only a short distance away. I'll drop him off as I go to my next appointment."
"Very good, Doctor. See you there."
<Loud 'snap' of closed connection>
"Lets go, Agent Liston. This will take only a few minutes and then we'll be going to see your friend, Mr. Lupus."
"Did she say 'zoo'?" Agent Liston asks as they start walking.
"Well, yes. 'Technically' a near norm animal morph becomes a ward of the state if family or friends can't tend its needs. And the city zoo did have custody of him before he was brought to us for treatment. I was forced to agree to sent him back at the appropriate time."
"I'm sorry, Doctor. I'm not following you."
Doctor Measures took a deep breath and slowing released it. "Can you keep a secret, Agent Liston?"
"Of course, that's a major part of my job description."
Deep in thought, Doctor Measures continued to smooth the lush pelt. The ottermorph began to gurgle and whistle in obvious pleasure.
"Very well... it'll be common knowledge very soon anyway. The rumors you might've heard are true. This 'flu' is not totally random, it appears to be influenced by outside forces having nothing to do with 'whatever' it evolved to do in nature.
"You mean someone's controlling it?"
"Not in the sense you're implying. But yes, someone 'is' controlling what this disease does to its victims. The number crunchers working for the CDC have been tracking victim profiles since day one, and they've discovered a rather ominous trend. There seems to be a major psychosomatic element to this disease."
"You're joking, right?" Agent Liston replied, as he pointed at the cooing Ottermorph.
"Are you telling me 'that' is all in his head?!"
"You can't be serious! It's a disease! It's an incredibly strange alien one I'll admit, but it's still just a friggin' disease! You'd have to have some pretty serious evidence to..."
Doctor Measures interrupted whatever Agent Liston was going to say by raising his arms. The sudden motion almost shoves the ottermorph within the startled agent's face.
"Take a good look. Tell me what you see." He orders.
"An otter... a damn big one... but just an otter." Agent Liston replies.
"Would you like to know how he got this way... Hummmm?" Doctor Measures replied as the contented otterish-type sounds ended and it began to chatter angrily in protest. Showing all the body motions of extreme embarrassment, the blunt paws raise to cover both ears as it curls into a ball once more.
"Don't be a baby! There's no way this can be kept secret forever. You should've thought of 'that' before."
"Before what, Doc?"
"It seems our furry friend here was rather obsessed with certain members of the family carnivora. In particular, he was fixated upon the mustelidae family and the common river otter. When he failed to report back after a week's sick-leave we started looking for him."
"The hospital's personnel office sent out a union representative to check on him at his home; the house he shared out in the suburbs with his parents."
"You wouldn’t believe what he found in his room. Ever square inch was devoted to otters. He had dozens of pictures on the walls, and there were so many books about them on the floor that walking around the room next to impossible. Even the bed spread had a picture of an sleeping otter on it."
"Mr. Wilson counted at least two dozen plush toy otters, and most of the T-shirts in his closets had picture of them too. I'm sure if he'd continued looking he would've found a pair of otter pajamas somewhere in that room."
"Big deal!" Agent Liston replied. "I've known lots of people just like that. One of my first assignments after the plague started was to investigate a bunch of loonies that'd been congregating over the the internet for years."
"They'd been swapping 'transformation' stories among themselves and our computer system picked up on the keywords 'Transform,' 'Morph,' 'Animorph,' and such."
"Since the junk they used to write had no connection with the plague, the director ordered us to stop wasting money and to drop the investigation."
"Did you say 'use to write,' Agent Liston?"
"Yes, that's correct. Very curious too. Just for fun I did a where-are-they now computer search last month. Most of the more active members disappeared shortly after my investigation ended. What few I was able to track down are scattered across the country in various hospital wards."
"Flu victims?" The Doctor inquired. Even his monotone voice couldn’t hide the interest Agent Liston's story had generated, as his eyes lit up and he stepped closer.
"And how! What few I found either couldn't or wouldn't even talk to me on the phone. And one alcoholic mule type I found working in a piano store even kicked in my car door! Shit... do you have any idea how long it's going to take me to pay for the damages on my salary?!"
"But enough about them, Doc. What happened to fuzzy here?" Agent Liston asked as he reached out in a friendly gesture to stroke the long tail. With the speed of a steel spring, the flexible body uncoiled and lunged for the approaching fingers.
"That it! You do that one more time and I'm not going to take you back when Doctor Grolier finishes with you. And you know what 'that' means."
Once again the ottermorph waved his short front limbs in protest as the unintelligible chattering became painfully loud. To Agent Liston it sounded a bit like a chipmunk yelling the word 'no' repeatedly at ultra high speed.
"What's with this Doctor Grolier, Doctor Measures?"
"That's what I was about to tell you before he tried to amputate your fingers. We were able to piece together what happened from what Mr. Wilson found in his room and the video tapes the zoo sent us."
"It seems that one of his last purchases was a stuffed otter mounted on a wooden stand. We found the taxidermist's receipt in his wallet and otter hairs all over the night table next to his bed."
"It apparently became his most prized possession. His mother said he'd carry it around the house no matter what he was doing. You name any room in the house and we found otter hairs in it."
"Roughly a week before he vanished he came down with the Martian flu. Instead of reporting to the hospital he convinced his parents that he'd only fallen down and sprained his back. He had them call the hospital to report a minor back injury that'd keep him from work for..."
"Let me guess." Agent Listons interrupts. "He locked himself in his room with all that otter stuff and his parents found an otter sleeping in his bed the next morning."
"No." Doctor Measures replies.
"No? What did happen then?"
"Our little friend here was what I call a 'misfire'. He was indeed morphing into an otter, but only to a very minor degree and at a moderate rate. Over the next few days a few classic otterish features did appear; short claw-like finger nails on hands and feet, a tiny stub of a tail, and some webbing between a couple toes, but that as far as it went."
"Both genetically and physically the changes were very minor. The box full of instant photographs he took during his transformation only proved how minor the changes were, and, from the look on his face, how disappointed he was about the whole thing. With a little plastic surgery and manicuring he'd be able to pass for human anywhere."
"So if you don't mind the expression, Doc. He was 'lucky.' Since he wasn't a danger to himself, or to anyone else, the dangerous species laws didn't apply to him. He'd be free to continue his life once he registered with the nearest evaluation office."
"Normally, yes. But you weren't going to give up your dream that easily... were you?" Doctor Measures replied as he tapped the fur covered skull causing the ottermorph to curl into an even tighter ball.
"What do you mean? You get sick and you change. End of story. Right?"
"Not exactly. You see, his job required the reading of medical files and attendance at our hospital staff meetings. So it goes without saying that he was well informed about the latest theories and case records."
"I blame myself mostly. I should've noticed how fascinated he was by patients that almost 'willed' the types of changes they underwent, or the high correlation between 'degrees' of transformation and the level of compromised immune systems that the patients had been suffering."
"So late one evening a week later he returned to the hospital. No one paid any attention to him when he locked himself in the biohazard lab and supposedly started catching up on his work load. And you'd need x-ray vision to see anything though the plastic containment suits they wear in there or..."
"'That's' when he turned into an otter?" agent Liston inquired.
"N0! Will you let me finish?!" Doctor Measures replied, a little anger showing in his tone.
"Sorry...!" Agent Liston replied, stepping back a pace.
"What he 'did' do was steal a massive amount of immunosuppressants and tranquilizers from the storage room..."
"Were you going to say something, Agent Liston?" Doctor Measures asked as he glared downwards. Agent Liston closed his mouth and started waving his hands in the negative.
"Nope, not me... I'm as quiet as a churchmouse! Please keep going."
"Very well." Doctor Measures replied as he continues to comb the deep piled fur with his gloved fingers.
"As I was saying... he came back to work just long enough to steal some rather potent drugs from the lab. He then drove to the city zoo and jumped over the wall. Because of the plague the zoo is rather understaffed and no one noticed when he entered the otter enclosure."
"He spent the next few days hiding deep inside an artificial cave while he dosed himself with the drugs. His only companions were the six curious otters that live there and that stuffed otter he took inside. 'That's' when he changed fully and the fun..."
"Over here, Doctor Grolier."
A young man rounded the corner and ran up to the Doctor. He was wearing stylish safari type clothing and holding a large wire mesh animal carrier. "There you are! I couldn't wait anymore! I was beginning to fear you'd changed your mind!"
"Not at all, Doctor Grolier. I always keep my word, and I wouldn't dream of interfering with your endangered species breeding program. See... here he is, safe and sound."
Doctor Measures reached out and dropped the ottermorph into Doctor Grolier's hands. The chirping complaints escaping the tightly wound bundle of fur grew even louder in volume and frequency.
"There... there, it'll be over soon." Doctor Grolier comforted the distressed ottermorph.
"Now when will we be getting him back?" Doctor Measures asked Doctor Grolier. Bending down Doctor Grolier gently placed the complaining ottermorph in the animal carrier and locked the door before replying.
"Soon, very soon. I'd say no more than a week or two."
"That's good. His mental state is a rather unstable and I'd like him returned as soon as possible."
"Won't you reconsider signing him over to the zoo, Doctor Measures? This creature is a miracle of Nature! Our lab hasn't found a single waterborn pathogen that he's vulnerable to. If we could transfer his immunity we could save the entire species!"
"I'm sorry, Doctor Grolier. But I really can't do that. But don't give up hope just yet. If he suffers another relapse I'll be forced to reevaluate his case and then we'll talk."
"Very well," Doctor Grolier replied followed by a long disappointed sigh, "I'll fax you the details and call when it's time to come pick him up. Do you still want a specimen for your lab?"
"There's no need, I changed my mind. We're too busy right now anyway. I'll be happy with a copy of the medical report and the video tape. You're welcome to keep any viable results."
"Thank you! You have no idea how much I appreciate your help! Goodbye!"
"Goodbye. And 'you' better be good and not cause Doctor Grolier any trouble while you're over there."
As Doctor Grolier began to walk away, the ottermorph uncoiled its body and pressed its nose against the wire-mesh door. With a tears streaming down the sides of the blunt muzzle it emits one final forlorn whistle. The sad sound fades slowly as he's carried down the corridor.
"Yes, Agent Liston?" Doctor Measures asks as he turns around and begins to walk away in the opposite direction.
"You were telling my about the drugs and the cave...?"
"Right. As I was saying, he hid himself in that cave and dossed himself with a combination of several rather dangerous immunosuppresants. He was counting on the latest medical findings that'd been released by the CDC."
"While it appear that the 'Martian Flu' does most of its dirty work by dredging up archaic DNA sequences, we're getting a number of cases that seem to work under the principal of contagion."
"Contagion? You mean they 'catch' non-human traits?"
"That's correct. By some unknown mechanism this disease collects genetic material far removed from the human evolutionary path. It then serves as a conduit for an inconceivable amount of energy as it overlays this material onto the infected victim's normal DNA structures."
"If the victim's immune system is already compromised by sickness, drugs, or mental state, the end results can be rather... spectacular."
"So... that's what happened. He deliberately screwed up what was left of his immune system and re-exposed himself to that stuffed otter?"
"That's about the sum of it, Agent Liston. But he did miscalculate a bit."
"Miscalculate? What do you mean?"
"Well, it seems that he failed to ask the taxidermist a rather important question before he spent several days being chased by six rather 'lonely' male otters."
"You don't mean...?!" Agent Liston exclaimed as he stopped walking and turned around to look in the direction Doctor Grolier had walked away.
"That's right." Doctor Measure's monotone voice continued to be heard as he walks around a corner and out of sight. "And I had to promise to return him... or should I say her?... to the zoo when it was time for 'Mr.' Oren to give birth."
"... time for 'Mr." Oren to give birth."
As laughter fills the darkened room again, the voice of 'Frank' called out.
"That's even better, Mr. Phillips! I can't see why you wasted your time working for that newspaper! With your imagination you should've been doing stand up comedy!"
"STOP LAUGHING!" the caninemorph screamed into the darkness as he stood up, but a hard slap on top of his head made him sit down again.
"Why should we, Rin Tin Tin? That's the best piece of fiction yet!"
"What's wrong with you people!? It really happened! When someone broke in and stole him from the zoo it was in all the papers! Even Greenpeace put his face on their calendar and offered ten million dollars reward!"
"Heresay and propaganda, Mr. Phillips! Just noise put out by Scab lovers to generate sympathy for those twisted ungodly 'things'. Why else would anyone put out good money to get one of those monstrosities back?"
"Heresay?! Progaganda?! What the heck are you talking about?! When Doctor Measures disappeared he took all his records with him! There was no one left to stop Doctor Grolier from getting his hands on that poor ottermorph!"
"So what? It's not like some stinking fuzz ball with a human brain would ever be useful to anyone. Yuck! Just thinking about it makes my skin crawl!"
"USEFUL!?" Mr. Phillips yelled back.
"You have no idea what they did to him... err her... ahh him! Hell! You know what I mean! Doctor Grolier kept him hidden and caged within the zoo's biolab for years! They'd still be cloning and pumping him full of fertility drugs if someone hadn't stolen him from the zoo!"
"Pity," Frank replied in a wistful tone. "I kinda like otters. Best damned winter coat I ever bought had a nice warm otter collar. You have no idea how hard a real fur coat is to get these days."
"You sick son of a...!" The enraged reporter began to yell back until an even harder slap on his head stopped him mid sentence.
"Okay, people! Pipe down! It's getting late and we're going to have to put this puppy to bed soon!" Frank called out.
Slowly the laughter died down and the room grew silent once again. Only the occasional electronically amplified cough or sneeze broke the silence.
"Just a few questions before you start reading again, Mr. Phillips."
"Yeah, right!" the caninemorph replied sarcastically.
"We're not boring you... are we?"
"I can think of a bunch of things I'd rather be doing." He replied through chattering teeth. The cold had long penetrated the thin layer of fur covering his unclothed body.
"Sniffing fire hydrants perhaps?"
"Screw yo... OUCH!" he began to reply until the butt of a large metal flashlight rapped him atop the head.
"Careful Oscar! Let's not crush his skull just yet! Now where was I? Oh, right! I have only a few more question to ask before you start reading again... if that's alright with you. Okay?"
"Very good! See people, you can teach an old dog new tricks!"
"Ha, Ha! Very funny! Aren't you getting bored with the dog jokes yet?"
"By no means, Flea Bag! You see, I kinda like dogs. Always have... always will... and collecting lame dog jokes is a hobby of mine. It's a rather harmless pastime for someone my age. But maybe you'd like to meet one of our younger members with a more 'interesting' hobby?"
"Heah, Mikey Mantel! Yoh... Manuel! You out there?"
"Sure thing, Frank. I won't be flying home until after the playoffs next week, and I never miss one of your parties if I can avoid it." A very deep toned voder voice replied with a thick latin accent.
"It's kind of cold outside tonight. Did you bring your blanket?"
"Cold!? You've got to be kidding! You could freeze your cojones off out there! And it's not much better in here! Of course I brought my favorite blanket."
"How about lending it to our 'guest' here, he looks kind of chilly."
"If you say so. But I want it back before I leave!" Manuel replies as a white and black stripped pelt is tossed next to the chair.
Before Frank can even finish saying, "Why don't you make yourself comfortable and...", the caninemorph snatched it off the floor and wrapped it around his midsection.
"Comfy?" Frank enquires in a neutral tone.
Refusing to express gratitude verbally, the caninemorph just nodded his head once while glaring angrily into the darkness.
"Good! I'd hate to have the ASPCA charge me with cruelty to animals!"
"Ha! Ha! Very funny!" Mr. Phillips replied while trying to cover his shoulders without re-exposing his mid body anatomy.
"Would you like to tell our shivering friend where you got the fur for that blanket?"
"Sure thing, Frank. Do you remember the 'Midnight Slasher,' dog hombre?"
"Yeah... it was all over the news about five years ago. Some sicko mutilated and killed seven women around around town. The cops never found him and he suddenly vanished six months after the killings started."
"I wouldn't say that. He's a lot closer than you think!"
"YOU...!?!?!" the caninemorph yelled back in shock.
"Screw you, Jerk Face!" Manuel yelled back so loudly that his voder blared with feedback.
"Say that again and you won't be dead before I tear your hide off like I did his!"
"You what!?" the caninemorph replies as his muzzle drops open in shock.
"You heard me! That friggin' asshole made a BIG mistake... he messed with my little sister!" The room filled with the unmistakable sound of wood slapping into a meaty palm.
"He was one of those... those... those..."
"The word's 'polymorphs,' Manuel." Frank called out helpfully.
"Thanks, Frank! I can never get that stupid anglo word right!" Manuel replied as the sound of wood and flesh colliding traveled around the room again and again.
"That bastard would show up at a single woman's door disguised as some poor lost pet. He even wore a collar with a fake phone number so that the victim would waste time trying to contact the owner. They never knew what they'd let inside their homes until it was too late."
"But I got him! One of my 'amigos' here lives in my sister's apartment building. He called me about this stray Collie that'd moved in with Carmen. He never suspected that my friend was watching him as he took food from the fridge, or changed channels on the TV set when she wasn't home."
"And you should've seen the look on his face a couple days later! I had to climb down a whole damned mountain in Africa and fly half way around the world to get back, but was he surprised when he entered her bedroom 'locked and loaded' in human form and found... me!"
Once again laughter rang out of the darkness as the 'slap' of, wood against flesh grew louder. Several voices began to sing in unison. With far more enthusiasm than harmony, the first few lines of the old 'Take me out to the ball game' song joined the laughter.
"He'd never seen a scent proof suit like the one Frank lent me. But he had no problem recognizing the baseball bat I hit him with! Even when he turned partway into ah... ah..."
"A 'wolverine,' Manuel."
"Thanks, Frank. That's right. Even turning partway into one big madre of a 'wolverine' didn't help him much. But, shit... was Carmen pissed when I couldn't get the blood stains out of her favorite carpet!
"Sure I did! I don't go out to the games anymore, but fake fur simply doesn't cut it when you're outside under the stars on a cold mountainside at night. Where else could I get the wolverine pelt you're wearing these days?"
Without warning, Oscar's gloved hand reached out and tossed a section of the furred blanket over the sitting caninemorph's right shoulder.
Turning instinctively at the sudden motion, he was surprised to find a pair of unblinking yellow eyes returning his glaze. Artificial glass eyes that'd long since replaced the living one that had once resided within the wolverinemorph skull resting on his shoulder.
Jumping up he tried to unwind the blanket. Once again the flashlight came crashing down on his head and he fell back heavily onto the chair.
"Keep it on," Oscar ordered from behind the chair, "he looks good on you!"
Gagging and wheezing the caninemorph bent forward in nausea. Within seconds canine jaws flew open and his stomach contents Splashed out upon the floor. The room echoed with even more laughter as he clutched his stomach in pain as the dry heaves wracked his body.
In a tone that is clearly indifferent to the caninemorph's discomfort, Frank's voder masked voice called out as the seizures slowly subsided.
"Are you done?"
Unable to speak, Mr. Phillips just nodded his head as he wipesdhis jaws dry with the back of one furred arm.
"That's good. Oh... Oscar?"
"Do me a favor and dump a couple more incense sticks under the chair. It seems the doggie woggie wasn't house trained. And now he's gone and made a stinky mess on the floor."
"I've only got a couple left, Frank."
"Go ahead and light'em all. We'll be done here soon anyway."
The groaning caninemorph began to rock in renewed agony as scented smoke rises to curl around him. The over powering stench of burning incense almost set off another round of dry heaving.
"Okay, Mr. Phillips. Enough fun for now. Start reading."
"Is there a problem?"
"Please take it off... I'll tell you anything! Just get it off me!"
"Very well. Oscar take it off and give it back to Manuel. I'd hate to see him catch cold on that mountain of his."
The leather-clad hands entered the light once more. With a few swift motions the pelt was removed and carried away into the darkness.
"Oscar?" <sounds of a deep yawn.>
"You forgot to take the other pelt too."
"He's still wearing it Frank. I thought you said that I should wait until, you know... after." Oscar replied as he snapped his knife open and closed.
"Silly, me! You're right! I must be more tired than I thought. You can take it off after we're done. See what kind of mistakes I make when you keep me up beyond my normal bedtime, Mr. Phillips?"
Whatever comments the caninemorph made were lost as the room filled with laughter again.
"And why should you care where that blanket came from? That bastard never was much of a credit to the human race, and he was even less when he became just like you... just another stinking Scab!"
"He could've used his shapeshifting abilities to help others! Just think how many lives he could've saved, how many people he could've helped! But no... just like of the rest of those self-centered damned polymorphs he just hid himself away and did nothing! Nothing but satisfy his warped friggin' mind's sexual fantasies on innocent people!"
"At least now, maybe for the first time, he's actually going to be of some use to someone. Maybe as a blanket he'll be able repay his debt to society."
"But you know all about 'debt,' don't you, Mr. Phillips?"
"What... what do you mean?"
A stack of envelopes fell to the ground near his feet.
"Don't lie to me! Look closer! They're all addressed to you!"
"But how... I threw them into the trash months ago!"
"I told you before, Mr. Phillips. We've been watching you for a long time. Maybe you can lie to yourself, but you can't lie to us. Your family never threw you out. You were never fired. You just ran away with your tail between your..."
"Enough! Leave me alone!" Mr. Phillips screamed back as he pounded the table top with both paws.
Is that what you 'really' want... to be left alone? Is that why you've been hiding out under an assumed name and getting your mail delivered to a drop box? What exactly are you hiding from?"
"Your parents are worried sick about you, and Leslie still wears your engagement ring. She's been to the city three times this year looking for you, and your old boss has kept your job open hoping you'd return."
"Answer me, Mr. Phillips! What the heck are you running from?!"
"Do you have the slightest idea how lucky you are?"
"LUCKY!!! JUST LOOK AT ME!!! I'M A FREAK!!! I LOOK MORE LIKE THE DOG I HAD AS A KID THAN I DO MY PARENTS!!!"
"Very well. Since you put it that way I'll look at you."
[several minutes of silence]
"Okay, I'm done and quess what I see?"
"I see things that many of 'your' kind would kill for! Two arms with workable hands so you don't drool over everything you've gotta carry in your mouth! Two legs to stand straight up on. A 'real' voice that doesn't have to come out of some stinking machine! A body that..."
"What the heck would you know about it?!" the caninemorph interrupts.
"You'd be surprised what 'I' know, Mr. Phillips."
"Yeah, right! Like some norm's going to know what I've gone through!"
"Go rot in Hell! I'm not playing this game anymore!"
"Read... or would you rather we finished this now?"
Mr. Phillips opened his muzzle to reply but stopped before the first word. For just inches away, the 'click' of an automatic pistol's safety had just sounded. With trembling fingers he smoothed out the pages and began to read once more.
Doctor Measures led the way as they traveled deeper into the labyrinth of interlocking corridors. Gradually the normal crowd of medical personnel was replaced by uniformed security guards and military personnel.
As they turned the final corner they approached an open doorway flanked by two heavily armed soldiers. Doctor Measures entered the room first and invited Agent Liston to enter with wave of his hand. Agent Liston nearly ran into the room to get away from the suspicious gazes that the soldiers are aiming in his direction.
He entered the room just in time to hear Doctor Measures greet the white coated figure sitting behind a large metal desk.
"Good morning, Doctor Liberman."
"Good morning to you too, Doctor Measures. And who's this...?" Doctor Liberman asks pointing in Agent Liston's direction.
"Doctor Liberman, this is Agent Liston" Doctor Measures replied. "He's here to observe the proceedings and take charge of the patient once he recovers."
"That's great! I was wondering what we'd feed Lon Channey when he wakes up!" Doctor Liberman replied laughing out loud at his own joke.
<'Damn!'> Agent Liston thought to himself. <'Are they all like this?'>
Oblivious to Agent Liston's silence the pair continued their conversation.
"And where 'is' the wolfman, Doctor Liberman?"
"He'll be here momentarily. One of the orderlies called down to say they're having a bit of trouble him getting him dressed. I've been using the extra time to review what little background information we've been able to gather. It's all here in the crime scene and the lab reports."
"May I...?" Doctor Measures asked extending his gloved right hand.
"Of course, but I you won't find much. It seems someone emptied the place before our people got there. Would you know anything about that, Agent Liston?" Doctor Liberaman asked as he handed a manila folder to Doctor Measures.
Agent Liston looks away. His body posture clearly indicated a reluctance to answer the question.
"Just like I thought," Doctor Liberman said to no one in particular. "it's always the same with these government types; smoke and mirrors... cloaks and daggers."
"Were you able to recover anything at all, Doctor Liberman?" Doctor Measures asked as he flips through the file.
"Nothing much. Just a few random items of clothing and such we found under the living room furniture. We didn't find a single item that'll give us a name to backtrack through our medical databases."
"So what did you find?"
"It's all inside the box." Doctor Liberman replied as he picked up a small cardboard box off the floor and dropped it on the tabletop.
"From the blood stains I'd say they were near the victims during the attack."
Doctor Measures leaned forward and reached into the box. After a few seconds he nodded his head in silent agreement before dropping each item back into the box once more.
"But you might be interested to see what we found inside the third victim's home... the next door neighbor."
Doctor Liberman reached down again and lifted an even smaller box to the desktop.
"Ahhhhh!" Doctor Measure's exclaimed as he lifted out several articles of intimate women's apparel.
"And you should find the results of the DNA testing even more interesting."
Doctor Measures dropped the clothing and began to scan the file once again.
"There's no doubt about these lab results, Doctor Liberman?"
Doctor Liberman shook his head and began to reply until loud shouts coming from outside forced him to stop, "None I'm afraid. I had the lab run them twice. It's pretty obvious what was going on. All this clothing belonged to the same woman and there's no question about the child's..."
Within seconds the doorway was packed solid as six white jacketed male orderlies tried to control a struggling and growling wolfmorph. Taking advantage of the crowded entrance he broke free from their grip and charged straight at the nearest object in his path... Agent Liston.
With a loud shout Agent Liston reached into his jacket and returned empty handed; in the heat of the moment he'd forgotten that he'd been forced to surrender his weapon before entering the facility. Terror stricken he tripped and began to fall backwards as the slavering jaws flew towards his face.
As he fell his vision was suddenly blocked by a huge white object. Doctor Measures had reached over his head and placed his right arm directly in the path of the long white teeth. With a meaty 'clunk' the jaws snapped shut and blood began to seep through the sleeve.
Without a single expression of pain the arm raised and lifted the surprised wolfmorph off the floor. Like some weird charm bracelet he was carried aloft for closer inspection. For several seconds he hangs in mid air growling and thrashing his limbs as he's examined dispassionately from several angles. The examination complete, Doctor Measures took a few unhurried steps forwards and slammed him into the wall.
Once... twice... three times the furred body collided with unyielding concrete. The bruised and battered wolfmorph's muffled cries decreasing in volume with each brutal impact. Finally the frenzied eyes unfocused and closed. Clawed hands and legs that'd until then been tearing at the lab coat fell limp and motionless.
Stepping away from the wall, Doctor Measures shook his arm. The blood stained jaws released their grip and the wolfmorph collapsed into a motionless heap at his feet.
Turning his back towards the stunned crowd Doctor Measures ordered, "Get out."
"But Doctor... your arm!" A nurse exclaimed as he pointed toward the blood that had begun to stain the white sleeve a solid bright red.
"GET OUT! EVERYONE... GET OUT! GUARDS! CLOSE THE DOOR!"
Silently the orderlies turned around and exited the room. In a matter of seconds only Doctor Liberman and Agent Liston remained.
With his back still towards the door Doctor Measures called out again, "Agent Liston, please go outside. I'll call you when it's time to return."
Agent Liston picked himself off the dusty floor and walked through the doorway. As it swung shut, he turned around, and, for a fraction of a second, watched as Doctor Liberman opened a first aid kit while Doctor Measures ripped off his torn jacket.
Shaking his head he backed away as the soldiers stepped sideways to block the door with their bodies. But he barely noticed their actions as he tried to make sense of what he'd just experienced, and the image that flashed before his eyes as the door slammed shut.
Finally he gives his head one last shake before dismissing what he'd seen as an illusion caused by his most recent brush with death. How else could he explain the scales covering most of Doctor Measures' arms and back? Green-black scales that match in every detail the crocodile hide gloves covering his hands.
Several minutes later the door re-opened and Doctor Liberman called out his name. As he entered, Doctor Liberman exited the room and closed the door behind him. Agent Liston found Doctor Measures sitting behind the desk wearing a fresh white lab coat. Only a small bulge under the right sleeve and the wolfmorph sprawled on the floor remained to show that anything had ever happened.
Without looking up from the file spread across the desktop Doctor Measures ordered, "Get him off the floor, sit him down on one of the chairs."
"Chairs? What chairs?" Agent Liston asked as he looks around the room.
"Over there." Doctor Measures replied pointing towards a grey metal cabinet.
Agent Liston walked across the room and opened the cabinet. Inside he found metal folding chairs, bottles of cleaning fluids, and a large assortment of chains and manacles. Grabbing the first chair he turned around and asked, "What about the other stuff?"
"We won't be needing most of it. Just bring me one of those chairs and that bottle with the yellow label."
Agent Liston obeyed and returned shortly with a chair and a large plastic bottle. Within moments the wolfmorph was sitting upright in the chair, his unconscious body being held in place by Agent Liston's hands on his shoulders.
"Now what?" Agent Liston inquires nervously as he begins to vigorously scratch his arms and neck.
"'Now' we wait. And what's wrong with you?"
"This damned itching is getting worse! It feels like every hair on my body is on fire!" Agent Liston opens his jacket and starts scratching his neck and chest with both hands.
"This place is crawling with all kinds of fleas and ticks. Remind me when we're done and I'll get you some calamine lotion and insect dip to take home."
"Gee thanks, Doc...Oops!" Agent Liston replied sarcastically as he jumped forward to stop the wolfmorph from falling off the chair.
"You're welcome." Doctor Measures replied dryly as he lowers his gaze to the desktop once more.
For several minutes the room is silent but for the sound of turning pages and Agent's Liston's near constant scratching. As the last page is turned Doctor Measures raised from his chair and walkd towards agent Liston.
"He's awake. Hold him down." He ordered as he approached the seated wolfmorph.
The words, "How can you tell?", had barely left Agent Liston's lips as the canine head snapped up and he began to growl.
Before he can fight his way free from Agent Liston's grip, Doctor Measures' huge hands clamped tight on both side of the canine skull. Barking and growling madly, the wolfmorph attempted to rise from the chair, but not a single one of his most frantic motions succeeded in budging the Doctor's hands more than an inch.
After several minutes the struggle died away as the wolfmorph's energy was spent..
"Good morning, Agent Lupus. My name is Doctor Measures. I'll be you attending physician this morning." Doctor Measures announced in his blandest tones.
"Hey Doc, what are you doing? He can't possibly understand what you're saying... can he?"
"Oh, I suspect he understands 'everything' I'm saying... don't you?" Doctor Measures replied as he shook the wolfmorph's head vigorously in the affirmative.
"You sure about that? He looks kinda gone to me." Agent Liston replied as the wolfmorph once again struggled in protest from his rough handling.
Ignoring the growls and snapping teeth, Doctor Measures continued, "Yes, he is quite good... isn't he. I must commend your agency on the high quality training it gives its agents. I do believe he has even convinced himself by now that he's only an animal."
"What do you mean?"
"This little love bite, " Doctor Measures twitched his right arm, " is quite normal behavior for flu victims that've had their personalities overlaid by animal instincts. But trying to kick an opponent in the groin is not exactly kosher... isn't that right, Agent Lupus?"
Doctor Measures shakes the wolfmorph's head once again.
"You mean this is just an act?"
"In a sense. But this act is primarily directed at one special member of the audience, himself. It seems that he did something that he doesn't want to remember. Am I right again, Agent Lupus?"
This time the response was quite different. With a minimum of movement the eyes and muzzle close as the head slowly tilted downwards. Doctor Measures released his grip and stepped back. Shortly thereafter he gestured with his hand for Agent Liston to do likewise.
Agent Liston protested this action, "Are you sure this is a good idea?", as he retreated several steps to give himself room in case the wolfmorph bolted from the chair.
Doctor Measures ignored the question as he pointed towards the desk and ordered, "Get me those boxes and the chair too."
Reluctantly, Agent Liston complied and returned moments later with the requested items. The wolfmorph took no notice of his movements nor that of the doctor as he sat down just inches away.
Reaching down, Doctor Measures lifted the larger box to his lap and began to rummage inside. Having arranged the contents to his satisfaction he looked up and began to talk to the wolfmorph once again.
"How long was it after you changed that you knew the truth, Agent Lupus? Five... ten... fifteen minutes perhaps?"
The wolfmorph ignored his words. With head bowed low on his chest he sat leaning forwards with his clawed hands resting in his lap.
Doctor Measures reached out and grabbed the long muzzle.
"Talk to me!" he yelled into the vacant eyes as they snapped open and a deep growl slowly built inside the furry chest.
"Knock it off, you're not impressing me." Doctor Measures replied as he releases the muzzle and pushed the head backwards.
Like a coiled spring the wolfmorph jumped up and threw himself with wide spread jaws straight at the doctor's throat. He barely got off the chair before he collided with Doctor Measures' closed fist. The room echoed with the impact as the wolfmorph was thrown back into the chair and it collapsed.
"Yeah, Doc?" Agent Liston replied from the furthermost corner of the room.
"Please set the chair upright."
Agent Liston circled around and grabbed the chair. He made sure not to get within arms reach of the wolfmorph as he redeposited it exactly where it had been previously located.
"Lets try this again... shall we?" Doctor Measures commented as he locked eyes with the wolfmorph spread-eagle on the floor.
"Get up." He ordered while nudging the black furred torso with a huge leather shoe.
Still reeling from the blow, the wolfmorph began to rise to his long legs and plantigrade feet. His clawed toes had barely touched the floor before Doctor Measures' foot lashed out and sent him crashing to the floor again.
"I didn't say to stand, Agent Lupus. Only people stand. Like any good dog you stay on all fours."
With out-stretched arms the wolfmorph jumped to his feet and rushed forwards. A clawed hand with stiffened fingers is thrust outwards in a classic karate move aimed at Doctor Measures' throat. The tightly held fingers glanced off the thick neck with little obvious effect and he crashed to the floor barely a second later. This time he didn't even see the blow Doctor Measures had delivered to his head.
As he raises to his knees with ears ringing he hears, "Very good, Agent Lupus. I didn't know karate was something a wolf bitch taught its pups. But frankly, you hit like a girl. Tell me, did your wife hit any harder before you killed her?
Doctor Measures reached into the box and tossed the torn remains of a red stained blouse over the wolfmorph's head. The effect couldn't have been more dramatic than if it'd been white hot steel.
With a great howl the wolfmorph tossed the cloth aside and backed away on hands and knees into a corner. Agent Liston jumped over the crawling wolfmorph as he was forced to abandon his former safe haven.
>From his new location behind Doctor Measures' chair he spoke aloud to himself, "Damn that was close!"
"You say something?" Doctor Measures inquired as he stuffed an item from one of the boxes into a pocket, while rearranging the rest to some plan known only to himself.
"Nothing important, Doc." Agent Liston replied as he looked around the room for some safer place to go.
"But what are you going to do now? This doesn't seem to be working."
"Not working? Why I'm almost done here."
"Done?! I can't that thing back to the agency! He still wants to chew my face off! How in Hell can you say you're almost done!?"
"What do you know about wolves, Agent Liston?"
"Not much. Just that they're big dogs and that they hunt in packs."
"Wolves are far more than 'big dogs.' They are among the most intelligent and efficient predators on the planet. Their entire social order revolves around a single breeding pair that mates for life and maintains an absolute faithfullness to each other."
"DID I MISS ANYTHING, AGENT LUPUS!?" Doctor Measures yelled at the wolfmorph that'd been slowly creeping in his direction. With a casual gesture he removed another piece of torn and blood spotted clothing, a baby's pajamas, and tossed it across the room.
WIth a loud canine 'yelp' the wolfmorph avoided the blue hued cloth and retreated into the corner, refusing to even look in its direction.
"So what's does that have to do with him, Doc?"
"Let me paint you a picture." Doctor Measures replied as he started tossing smaller pieces of torn cloth at the wolfmorph seemingly for his own amusement.
"Here we have your highly trained agent coming home to a loving wife and newborn baby after months of the most stressful duty imaginable. Sick and disoriented he enters his home and finds everything he suffered for. Or that's what he 'thinks' he suffered for."
"Hours later he begins to change. Maybe his wife was lying beside him, maybe she wasn't, it doesn't much matter at this point. But change he did. Overwhelmed and disoriented by sensory overload he gets up and does what any stressed parent does in an emergency... he checks on the baby."
"That's when the picture gets ugly... AM I GETTING WARM YET, AGENT LUPUS?!"Doctor Measures ended the sentence
by yelling in the wolfmorph's direction. His only reply was a
loud bark and rattling growl.
"But he must've had some reason for what he did? I saw the crime scene photographs. He must've gone mad to do what he did!"
"There is no madness in Nature." Doctor Measures replied as he dug into the box and found some plastic crib toys to throw at the wolfmorph.
"Madness is a concept that lies solely in the human realm. In Nature the survival of self and progeny is to the only definition of sanity. And in the male wolf's world this boils down to an overriding instinct to make sure the next generation is his and his alone."
"That still doesn't explain why he attack them."
"That 'is' the explanation of why he attacked them, Agent Liston. Our growling friend over there probably doesn't even remember exactly what happened. But at some point his new senses discovered the 'wrongness' of the situation and he turned on them. It's possible he only attacked her when she tried to protect the baby, or just maybe he attacked her first and the baby was just an innocent victim. I can't see that it matters much anymore." Doctor Measures replies as he shrugs his shoulders.
"I still don't get you, Doc." Agent Liston replied, more confused than ever.
"Go to the desk and read the DNA lab report. It's somewhere near the middle of the file. Go on... I'll keep our friend entertained while you’re gone."
Reluctantly, Agent Liston turned his back on the wolfmorph and walked towards the desk.
Page by page he went through the file until he found the right one and began to read. His eyes widen a few seconds later as he lifted his head and yelled out, "It wasn't his kid! His wife was cheating on him with the next door neighbor!"
With a earsplitting howl the wolfmorph launched himself across the room. In a single bound the black furred body jumped over the desk and landed atop Agent Liston. Surprised and stunned he laid on his back as foam flecked jaws descend rapidly towards his throat.
Barely an inch away the teeth clashed shut but could drop no closer. Holding onto the scruff of the wolfmorph's neck Doctor Measures sat down on the desktop and began to speak.
"That's not going to work, Agent Lupus. You can't kill everyone. It simply isn't practical."
The wolfmorph ignored the restraining hand as he repeatedly snapped his jaws at an ashen faced Agent Liston.
"Very well. Lets continue." Doctor Measures announced as he stood up and lifted the struggling wolfmorph off the floor.
"Agent Liston? You still with me?"
"Agent Liston, it's almost noon. Either answer me or I'm going to let him loose to have lunch... with you."
After several tries, Agent Liston managed to squeek out a single word past the lump in his throat.
"Very good. Now get up and get me that wastepaper basket."
Clawing his way up the side of the desk, Agent Liston finally managed to stagger into an upright position. He held onto the desktop for support, as the blood returned to his face and his legs slowly stopped wobbling. As he turned around he finds Doctor Measures pointing at a metal wastepaper basket.
"Well?" Doctor Measures asked with an annoyed look on his face as he carried the wolfmorph back to the folding chair and dropped him in.
"I'm... I'm... I'm going!" Agent Liston replied as he walked unsteadily across the room and kicked the basket it into the far corner.
"Just don't stand there. Go get it and put it under the ceiling exhaust fan."
"Okay, I'm done."
"Excellent. Now pick everything off the floor and put it in the basket. Oh... and empty the boxes too."
"Get the alcohol bottle and pour some inside the basket. That's right. About half will do. Now go to the desktop and get me a kitchen match from the top drawer."
The wolfmorph watched Agent Liston's every move with the single minded focus of the master predator. His eyes followed as each and every item was picked off the floor and dropped into the wastebasket. His attention was so complete that it took him several seconds to even notice Doctor Measures' leaning over the chair and whispering into his ear.
"... she's dead, Agent Lupus. You killed her. You killed the baby. You killed the competitor who invaded your domain and took your mate. They're all dead. Your government friends have taken everything away and you're never going to see them again. How about we finish what you started?"
Doctor Measures raised one hand from the wolfmorph's shoulder and ignited the match by striking it upon the chair. He waved the burning ember in front of the vacant eyes before tossing it into the wastepaper basket. With a small flash the wastebasket burst into flame and the contents began to burn.
Slowly the eyes turned away from Agent Liston and focus on the column of flame and smoke raising ever higher from the metal container. So single-minded was his concentration on the flames that he never noticed as Doctor Measures releases his shoulder and walked towards the basket.
"Take a good look. By now those who you loved.... all those you cared about... have been turned into ashes to be scatttered upon the winds. Gone. Forgotten. Lost. Unloved. No one left to remember them. There is nothing left to prove that they ever existed. They have only a dark furred animal... a dark wolf... to morn their passage. Nothing human to keep their memories alive."
The unreadable canine eyes turned away from the flames and watched as Doctor Measures reached into his pocket and removed a dark hued baret.
"My mistake, Agent Lupus. It seems I forgot something. It's nothing much, just a little black hat with a name embroidered inside. No matter, she won't be needing it anymore. You won't mind if I get rid of it now... will you?"
Doctor Measures dropped the hat into the wastebasket and stepped back. For the first time since his transformation a human word exploded from the wolfmorph's throat as he jumped out of the chair and thrust both hands deep into the flames, "NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!"
Within seconds the fur on both arms was ablaze. Howling the same word over and over, he ignored the pain as the fur flares into ash and the skin underneath began to blacken. Finally his singed fingers found the burning cloth and carefully smothered the flames between his blistered palms.
Clutching the smoldering cloth gently to his chest, he yelled out a name before collapsing to his knees upon the floor. Rocking back and forth he continued to endlessly repeat himself, as tears run down his muzzle to dampen the cloth within his paws. He takes no notice as Doctor Measures upends the basket to extinguish the fire, or when he leans down and ties a green ribbon around his throat.
"Lets go, Agent Liston."
Doctor Measures turned around and walked towards the door. Stopping midway he looked upwards and ordered, "I want a crash crew down here, Stat. I want him bandaged up and in a private observation suite within the hour."
"On their way, Doctor. Anything else?" A tinny sounding voice announced from a hidden loud speaker.
"Nothing here, but clear an emergency room for me. I want doctors Thomson and Osaka ready when I get there. I'll be bringing a plague victim upstairs for evaluation in a few minutes."
"Understood. Room echo thirty two is presently vacant and the nursing staff will have it ready before your arrival. Doctor Thomson has been notified and Doctor Osaka will be finished with another patient shortly."
"What's going on? What plague victim?" Agent Liston interrupted.
"We're all done here, Agent Liston. Agent Lupus will most likely be ready to be discharged within a day or two, but that's not important now."
"That's great doctor! My superiors will be overjoyed and... OUCH! Damn it! That hurt! Why'd you do that for?!" Agent Liston screamed as he stepped back clutching his neck.
Without a single word Doctor Measures raised his gloved hands towards Agent Liston's face. Between the scale clad fingers he stretched the foot long white hair that he'd just pulled from Agent Liston's neck.
The first of Agent Liston's screams was cut short as Doctor Measures raised his head and ordered, "End recording."
"You can stop now, Mr. Phillips. It's time." Frank's voice called out of the darkness.
For the first time since he was dragged into the building the room is absolutely silent. No laughter, no whispering, no shuffling of feet to indicate that there was anyone but himself was inhabiting the vast empty space.
Silently Oscar's hand reached over his shoulder and removed the pages from his hands. He returned moments later and deposited a small battery powered cd-rom player on the chair top.
"Turn it on." Frank ordered.
After a few seconds of searching, he finds the ON button and presses it. The annoyingly cheerful tone of all morning newscasters began to rattle the small built-in speaker.
"Good morning, sleepy heads!!! It's seven a.m. on a beautiful but cold Wednesday morning, February 1rst, 2023!!! And here's the news!!!"
"Washington is still abuzz with the President's confession! Last night before a packed White House Press Club audience he ended months of speculation and confessed to have had quote, Less than honorable and inappropriate contact' unquote, with Tammy WhiteStripe, a local Vixen morph Scab!"
"His confession comes after months of investigation by an independent counsel and has refueled the opposition party's demands for impeachment hearings."
"Ms. WhiteStripe, a well known young Scab 'actress' famous for her triple x movies has reportedly dropped out of sight. Her lawyer, Tony 'Jaws' Luciano, a mid degree anthropomorphic white shark, came out of his saltwater tank just long enough to announce."
"My client is highly upset by the President's confession, and she denies most firmly the allegations that it was she who 'stalked and pounced' on him during a private meeting at the White House."
"This reporter having interviewed Ms. WhiteStripe at close proximity just before her disappearance has only one piece of advice for the President. Go look up the word 'litter' in the dictionary!"
"On a sadder note, tragedy hit the newly dedicated Jack L. Chalker International Washington airport this morning. Shortly after takeoff, a private Lear Jet piloted by local attorney and electoral hopeful Thomas Moholland crashed into the Potomac River near the town of Indian Head, Maryland."
"The names of the passengers, all believed to the upper echelons of an unidentified business group, have yet to be released pending notification of next of kin. Eyes witnesses on scene claim the aircraft exploded in mid air and nosed dived almost straight down into the water."
"As these aircraft are not required to carry the so-called 'black boxes' that major aircraft use, and no emergency radio messages were received from the craft, the cause of this tragedy may never be known."
"Coincidentally, it has been reported by reliable Wall Street sources that a controlling interest in many of Mr. Moholland's business holdings were purchased by an unnamed holding company just minutes before the crash."
"Now onto sports..."
Oscar's hand reached down again and carried the machine away. For several seconds the caninemorph remained silent, his eyes glued to where the machine had been.
"You killed him."
"Accidents happen, Mr. Phillips."
"YOU KILLED HIM!!!" He yelled as his head snapped up and he pounded the chair top with both paws.
"He was a threat to us."
"Yes... just like you were."
"He's really is out there... isn't he?
"And he's still out there killing Scabs."
"NECESSARY!? SINCE WHEN IS TORTURE AND MURDER 'NECESSARY!?"
"When there isn't any other choice." Frank replied in a neutral tone.
"You can't fool me! You're doing it for all that stolen money!"
"That money was never stolen, Mr. Phillips. It has always belonged to us. And, occasionally, we're forced to defend it from those who learn of its existence. We must have these funds to continue our work... to save those like us."
"Yeah, I'll believe that! Save them when they're caught by the police and dumped behind bars!"
"Actually, it's exterminators and animal shelters most of our members fear."
"What the heck are you talking about?! Who are you people?!"
"Why thank you, Mr. Phillips! It's so rare for anyone to call us 'people.'"
"Please turn on the lights. You know where the switches are."
Oscar's footsteps retreat into the darkness. Seconds later a blinding white floodlight shined straight down upon the caninemorph. Raising a paw over his eyes he looked down to see an old German shepherd limp into view.
The animal drops to its haunches with a small grunt and cocked its head to the side as if in deep thought. The movement causes the voder tied to its neck by a green ribbon to swing back and forth.
"Good morning, 'cousin.'
"You're a...a...a... dog!?"
"Will you look at that!" the voder broadcasts. "A few seconds ago I was 'people.' Now I'm back to being just a dog! Oh, woe is me!"
As the number of lights beaming down increase, several more voices call out from all directions.
"How about me, Mr. Phillips? Am I still 'people' too?" The voice of 'Susan' inquires.
He turned his head and watched as a Green iguana laboriously climbed a tree branch set upright in a bucket of concrete. The sharp claws on its feet creating the scratching sounds which he'd previously mistaken for a woman's nails. As its seven foot body came to a rest, he could see the miniature voder tied around its torso with a piece of green ribbon.
"Or me, fuzzy?" The voice of 'Tony' calls out. The caninemorph looked down again to see a graying raccoon sitting next to his stolen hard drive. Miniature computer hand tools hang from the green ribbon wrapped around its neck and torso.
A loud shout makes him sit up and look behind the chair.
"Yo! Perrito! You'd better not call 'me' people or I'll bat your head to Mars!" A huge silver backed mountain gorilla threatened as a baseball bat slams into a leathery palm.
In every direction animal morphs of all types and sizes watch him silently. In orderly rows and columns they stand, sit or lie quietly staring back at him. From anteater to zebra, a green ribbon is tied somewhere on their bodies.
Very few are anything less than upper high degree and most are so close to animal norm that it would be next to impossible to tell the difference.
"Mr. Phillips?" The German shepherd called out as the caninemorph's jaws opened and closed silently.
"Please close your muzzle. You're frightening some of our smaller members."
The caninemorph closed his jaws and mumbled, "Mem... members? Who... who are you?"
"We're plague victims, Mr. Phillips. Many of us are the ones mentioned in those old files."
"But how...?! You're all dead...!!!"
"Funny, I don't feel dead... damn fleas!!!" With a sudden motion a hind paw lifted off the ground and began to vigorously scratch behind a pointed ear. "You'd think after twenty years I'd finally find a flea collar that works!!!"
"AAAAhhhhhh!!! That's better!!! Now where was I? Right... we're not dead, Mr. Phillips. That's just what we want everyone to think."
"But why? There's no need to hide? You're just like me!"
"Would you mind leveling the playing field for me?"
Oscar walked away from the wall mounted power panel and assumed his position behind the chair. With a single fluid motion he grabbed the backrest and dumped the surprised caninemorph onto the concrete floor.
As he laid prone on the floor with the chain stretched out behind him the German Shepherd morph walked slowly forward and yelled into his face, "NO... HUMAN!!! WE... ARE... NOT... LIKE... YOU!!!"
With a gesture of pure canine contempt, Frank turned around and brushes his tail across the caninemorph's face and walked slowly away. After turning around several times in the same spot he sat down again and began to speak.
"Look at me, Mr. Phillips! Take a long hard look! Finished? Good! Now take look around the room! Do you see a single one of us that could walk down the street and have a 'human' call us brother!? That fucking flu took away our bodies and THEY took away our humanity! We lost everything!"
"I'm... I'm sorry." Mr. Phillips replied as he rose to his knees.
"Did you hear that my friends? He's 'sorry.' This half dog is 'sorry.' Well I only have one thing to say about that... WE DON'T WANT YOUR BLOODY PITY!!!" Frank yelled as angry mutterings echoed around the room.
"Your stupid snooping almost exposed us! To Hell with the money! That asshole Moholland and his moronic Humans First friends could've hurt the only living being on this whole damned planet that matters to us!"
Frank ended the sentence by growling and clashing his toothy jaws in the caninemorph's direction. The bone on bone sound is the same that Mr. Phillips had heard when he'd thrown the dog dish into the darkness.
"Doctor... Doctor Measures?"
"Someone give him a pat on the head! Of course I'm talking about, Doctor Measures!"
For several seconds the German Shepherd morph sits motionlessly. With a slow shake of his head a decision is made and he began to speak again.
"Look at me! I've been like this for over twenty years! Late one evening I was walking home to take care of Oscar when the virus hit me! In a matter of minutes I lost it all! Body... Mind... and Soul! I ran wild around the city for weeks eating garbage and road kill until a dog catcher dumped me in the pound!"
"Would you like to know how I got the name 'Frank?' Go ahead... ASK ME!!!"
"Well, to make a long story short, the bastard running the pound tried to save some money by having the unwanted animals destroyed here. He dumped me inside that oven behind you and turned on the gas!"
"There's a safety latch inside those doors, Mr. Phillips. Somehow I turned the knob and jumped out leaving the rest to burn alive! The soldiers here were so impressed by my miraculous escape they treated my burns and adopted me as a pet. They named me 'Frank Furter' and fed me table scraps from the company mess!"
Slowly the German shepherd rises to all fours and turns sideways exposing his flank to the caninemorph's view. The entire left hind leg and hip was a vast expanse of old scar tissue devoid of the slightest amount of fur.
"Well... it could've been worse. My old army buddies could've named me ‘Medium Well Done!’"
"Somehow... even Oscar doesn't know how... he recognized me when they televised the closing of this place. He fought with the guards until an army doctor tested my DNA just to shut him up. And when the Veteran's hospital gave up on me, he kidnapped me and literally hand carried me to Doctor Measures for treatment."
"Not impressed. Okay... how about looking at Susan over there. She was barely seventeen years old and she'd just seen her entire family die of the plague. She was completely alone when her mind started to fade as scales and claws started growing out of her body! The next door neighbors did nothing when she crawled to their doors begging for help dragging a long green tail behind her!"
"The last thing she remembers is a looter breaking in a couple days later. He found her crawling around on the floor more lizard than human in the torn remains of her clothing. But do you think that bastard called for help? Not likely! He just tied her up and waited for the transformation to be complete!"
"He picked the house clean and then sold her to a reptile breeder... no questions asked! By the time we rescued her she must've laid a couple hundred eggs!"
"One of the doctors that Doctor Measures trained gave her back her mind, but the damage was already done. How'd you like to live with the knowledge that 'your' children were all sold for a seventy five bucks apiece in pet stores around the country?!"
Or, how about Tony over there? He'd was doing temp work for a small computer design company in Ottawa. After closing hours one day he was finishing up a CAD project when his fingers started changing into claws. Within minutes he was scampering happily around the building emptying trash cans and storing the contents under his desk."
"But do you think that bastard he had for a boss called anyone for help? Hell no! He was paying Tony illegally under the table anyway, so why should he get in trouble with the government for some stinking little animal? He just opened the door and kicked his furry butt into the snow!"
"Tony nearly froze to death in that shallow little burrow he dug in the park! By the time we found him he was dying of pneumonia and weighed about five pounds. The doctors nearly had to amputate all four of his frostbitten paws!"
“Still nothing to say?”
"You killed all those norms, didn't you? You killed them all and Mona too!"
"How perceptive of you! But we're not monsters, Mr. Phillips.
"Pretty little Mona was never in any real danger from us. It was 'you' who caused her to act against us. You might like to know that right now she's in bed with her boyfriend... her 'human' boyfriend to be specific."
"I've been told she's quite good in bed. Pretty soon they'll wake up and do the two step polka again before she goes to work. Funny how they never seem to mind when 'Puss N' Boots' the kitty watches them every morning!"
"And the others?"
"Well, lets just say we make some changes in their lives!" The German Shepherd morph replied as a long pink tongue fell from the side of his muzzle and a bushy tail sweeps the floor behind him.
Once again the room echoes with the sound of laughter as paws, hooves, and other appendages slap the floor.
"What do you mean? What's so funny!?"
"Getting stuck in a animal's body and thrown into a fire kinda ruined my whole fucking day! But it did leave me... with us... a lot of time to think about certain people."
"In my case, on one bright sunny morning my old dog pound buddy went into the kitchen to make breakfast. But, darn the luck, somehow a gas valve was already open and the stupid thing blew up! With luck the doctor's might give him something that looks like a face someday."
"And let's not forget Susan's Good Samaritan! He checked into the hospital for a little elective surgery and, somehow, his records got mixed up. It just awful what those surgeons must do save a cancer patient's life. But he must be getting use to sitting down to pee by now!"
"Oh... and lets not forget Tony's kind hearted old boss! He went out on a warm summer day to meet some potential investors and somehow got himself locked in an old abandoned industrial freezer. The police still can't figure out who fixed it or how it started up. And it's a damn shame they didn't find him in time to save his fingers and toes!"
“It was you! You're the one that got that otter away from the zoo!” Mr. Phillips yells accusingly as he point his paw like hand at the German Shepherd morph
“Bingo! Guilty as charged! Yup, that was us.” Frank admitted as he bowed his head to the floor momentarily. “It took us to forever to find him after the feds confiscated Doctor Measures’ files. But never fear, we got him... or should I say her?... back before we dispensed a little justice.”
“Justice? You mean Doctor Grolier? What did you do...?”
“Trust me, Mr. Phillips. You simply don't want to know.”
"And... and now it's my turn?" The caninemorph asked in a voice just barely above a whisper.
"Yes." Frank replies as he limped forward and stared eyeball to eyeball with Mr. Phillips. "Now it's your turn."
"Oscar... let him have it."
On hands and knees Mr. Phillips closed his eyes and tensed his body in anticipation of the first gun shot. He lets out a loud yelp and his eyes flew open as a large white envelope slapped into the ground inches from his nose.
"Open it." Frank orders as he walks away.
With trembling fingers the caninemorph tore the envelope open and let the contents fall to the ground. His eyes grow so round that the whites show as he stared down at the thousands of dollars scattered before him.
"Pick it up." Frank ordered as he returned carrying a small metal cage in his jaws. Several feet away he lowered the cage gently and sat down once again.
"But what... why?" He asked as he gathered the money into a pile and looked up.
"Go home, Mr. Phillips. Take that money and buy yourself a plane ticket. If you hurry you can be back with your family and friends before noon. Use what's left to marry that sweet little gal that's been worrying about you."
"I don't understand! Why are you doing this!"
"Like I said, you 'were' a threat to us. We had to find out who put you up to this, and find out their true motives. Consider that money our little gift to you."
"But who are you?! Why are you doing all this?!"
"We're nobodies, Mr. Phillips. We don't exist. We're just the uncounted and forgotten dead who fell through the cracks and got stepped on."
"You're not going to tell me... are you?"
"What's to tell? Look around you. What kind of life... what kind of human life... do you think we could have looking like this? The ones you see here are our ‘least’ transformed members. None of us ever had option to pick of the pieces of our lives and try to go on... like you."
“Our sole mission now is to protect and care for those like us. To find those that can't barely remember, or have totally forgotten, what they once were and bring them back And to make it possible for them to live out the lives their new bodies dictate without human interference.”
"But there are many high degree Scabs living and working with the norms! They're everywhere. In the schools and universities. You don't need to hide!"
"Really? All of them? Are you sure? How would you like to work next to a thirty foot anaconda I know? He's a very pleasant fellow and the best investment consultant we've ever had... when he's warm. But he does have the unfortunate habit of turning into a brainless eating machine when he gets cold."
"And there must be hordes of employers looking for a four hundred pound Brown bear with a PH.D. in English literature. The fact that he sometimes has problems telling the difference between humans and other wild game should only be a minor problem."
"Nothing to say, Mr. Phillips? These examples a bit too extreme you think? Well, I must confess I was being a bit selective. Most of our members are hardly that high up on the food chain. And a good number of those are far too overwhelmed by animal instincts to ever come out of the cages we're forced to put them in."
"Of course we spare no expense trying to make them comfortable, but that means very little really. How would you like to spend a human life span cowering in fear behind wire mesh or bouncing around a glass jar? How would you like to jump in terror at the slightest sound or moving shadow?"
"Some will recover in time... there's always a few who do. Those we'll send into human and Scab homes to be cared for... to be loved again. And a few we'll send to our safe havens around the world. There they'll be cared for in as natural an environment that we can provide."
“The rest of us just try to cope and get by the best we can. When the pressure becomes too great, when the memories start to grow dim, we'll follow our friends into the animal preserves and leave all ‘this’ behind us."
“Unfortunately most of our members are too frightened to ever leave their cages. They'll just pace in circles waiting... praying... to forget that they were once human. Or when they... when we... will finally ask ‘him’ to end it."
Yes, Mr. Phillips. End it. That's the other reason we need Doctor Measures."
Without another word he turned around and walked away. With Oscar trailing close behind, he walked to the far side of the room and rises to his hind legs. After several tries he manages to press a wall mounted switch and gears clash as an electric motor begins to labor.
With a nerve rattling sound the wall splits in two. As it opens wider the pure white rays of a winter sun floods deeper and deeper into the building. Into this glare the German Shepherd morph limps away with the support of Oscar's hand laid tenderly on his shoulder. Moments later the others begin to follow.
To the sounds of fluttering wings, pounding hooves and scrapping claws, they turn and are momentarily outlined in the light. Within minutes the last silhouette vanishes and the vast empty space is silent... silent but the whistling of wind coming through the door and the nearly inaudible sound of metal scrapping on metal.
Turning his head away from the exit, the caninemorph spots the source of the sound. Only a few feet away the small wire cage still sits upon the concrete floor. The chain around his neck just barely allows him to crawl within reach of the cage and look down into its contents.
Inside the cage, a small white mouse circles endlessly within a spinning metal wheel. With a single minded devotion to its task, it races around as if its frantic motions could somehow carry it somewhere else.
The little rodent ignores the caninemorph’s movements as he reaches down and opens the envelope taped to the side of the cage. In the light streaming through the entrance he begins to read.
Farewell, Mr. Porter:
The key to your collar is inside the cage. And you'll find a suitcase filled with your clothing just outside the door on the loading dock.
By the time you read this message we will have departed back to wherever we feel most comfortable. We regret having to put you through this ordeal but we had no other choice. Please accept our sincere apologies.
I know its probably inappropriate to ask, but I wish you to do me a favor.
My time is growing short and I need to find a good home for my little friend. He's been my constant companion for several years now, and I’d like to know that he's in good hands before I go.
Oscar bought him to keep me company while I was undergoing another round of ‘reinforcement’ therapy, and I believe he paid something like seventy five cents to save him from becoming snake food in a pet store.
His needs are few and you won't believe the tricks I've taught him. He answers to the name Pinky, sometimes, and he's crazy about rice crispies and seltzer water.
I'm sure you'll enjoy his company and become good friends in time.
Dropping the paper he carefully lifts the cage off the floor and looks inside. Beneath a light covering of sawdust and mouse droppings he spots the key taped to a small piece of white cardboard. After failing to discover any exterior latch or lever that will open the cage, he growls in frustration and sits down with the cage in his lap. In an irritated tone he complains out loud.
"Okay, mouse! How about coughing up that key!"
To his surprise the tiny white mouse leaps off the rotating wheel and begins to dig through the soiled sawdust. Jumping around frantically it soon kicks most of it out of the cage and into his lap.
Cursing under his breath he drops the cage back on the floor and begins to brush the mess out of his fur. Seconds later a slight tickling sensation makes him look down to find the cage door open and the mouse climbing his furry leg with the cardboard within its teeth.
<'Shit! It must've broken open when it hit the ground!'> He thinks to himself as he watches the tiny rodent climb even higher on his leg.
When it finally reaches his knee it squats down and removes the piece of cardboard from its mouth. With nose twitching madly it spins the white card around in its pink paws until the long incisors had gnawed away the tape and the key falls free.
Amused by its antics he chuckles to himself while reaching down for the key. The sudden movement causes the mouse to grab the cardboard once again in its jaws and race back towards the cage.
The collar and chain soon fall away and the totally exhausted caninemorph rises to his paws and begins to walk slowly towards the open door. In passing he reaches down and grabs both the cage and the pile of bills.
As he exits the building he looks down into the cage and finds the mouse sitting motionlessly in the center. In its tiny pink paws it holds the chewed piece of cardboard which it has already gnawed almost in half.
In the growing sunlight he can see that the white cardboard is covered with penciled writings. Curious he sticks a paw inside the cage and reaches towards the mouse. With a tiny squeak it drops the card and races back into the wheel.
The money soon falls from his hand as he sits down heavily upon the suitcase. For what seems like an eternity he stares into the cage as the wheel within rotates endlessly and the sound of scraping metal fills his ears.
Eventually the cold winter winds force him back to reality. After clothing himself he collects the scattered money as his mind turns towards family and home. With one hand firmly on the cage handle and the other on the suitcase he walks away from the building never to return.
Only the little white card remains to float away on the rising winds. The message scribed on its surface will be engraved on his mind forever.
I forgot to tell you to keep Pinky away from cats of any type. They simply terrify him no end. He will sometimes hide for days if a cat comes even close to the house. But he will come out sooner if you put out some of his favorite treats and call his name.
In case ‘Pinky’ doesn't work, you might want to try ‘Matthew’ or ‘Liston.’
The years had been kind to the tiny corpse in the silk lined casket. Immaculately preserved the countless miniature feathers had faded little with the passage time.
For two long decades the mummified remains had lain among the folds of soft white cloth. Golden wings that had once beaten so frantically lie still. As still as the tiny heart that had burst in terror so long ago.
Locked in the eternal embrace of its pin sized talons a wedding ring sparkles under the room's harsh florescent lights, while nearby its dulled and scratched mate barely manages to encircle the smallest joint of a huge reptilian digit. A clawed finger that even now bends protectively around the tiny wooden box.
Only the gapping beak shatters the illusion of eternal peace. From deep within a silent cry emerges to echo down the years with undiminished strength. A terrified plea for aid which the crocodile morph looking down into casket will hear until his dying day.
"Hush, my dear. I'm here. There's not need to be scared. Everything will be all right. Yes, I'm sorry I wasn't there when you got sick, but I'm here now. We'll be together forever, dearest. I'll never let anything separate us again. You'll see, I'll bring you back. I'll bring you all back. I promise."
Scaly eye lids close tightly on opposite sides of the huge saurian head. Cold salty tears fall like gentle rain upon feathers and cloth as jaws capable of bending steel tremble with barely contained emotions. Nearly inaudible words continue to flow.
"A bird? A canary? Don't be silly! You'll always be the beautiful woman I fell in love with. You'll always be the most beautiful rose in the garden..."
Suddenly the eye lids snap open as the black pupils underneath shrink to narrow slits. But it's not the laboratory nor the equipment filling it that they see. The crocodilian head sways violently as hard won mental barriers are tested once again by painful images from the past.
Over and over the long jaws open and snap shut, the explosive sound clashing with the musical tones being emitted from an antiquated desktop computer.
<electronic chimes> <a computer synthesized voice begins to speak>
You've got mail!
You've got mail!
A black claw larger than a human norm's thumb falls upon the Enter key and momentarily silences the machine. Within seconds the electronic voice is heard once again as lines of unintelligible symbols scroll downwards.
Please enter password to begin decryption of incoming message.
With a final shake the elongated skull grows still as nictating membranes flash across eyes that once again refocus on the present. As the gapping jaws snaps shut the heavy head slowly rotates and a single emotionless reptilian eye begins to stare directly at the computer monitor.
"Serinus canaria." A deeply resonating non human voice replies to the computer's request.
Voice check confirmed. Password accepted. It announces as the screen fades to black and returns covered with readable text a second later.
>From Top Dog To JM
>Priority message... request immediate response<
"Proceed." the harsh voice replies as the same word appears on the screen
>Bengal Tiger morph. Description matches out of town gang-banger designated 'Blades'. Records show affiliation with 'Bloods' street gang and a history of mental instability. Suspect presently stalking lapine morph 'Phil Guesz' in near animal norm form. Attack imminent. Instructions?<
>West riverside park. 100 yards from apartment complex on West and Third. We can have an armed response team there in five minutes.<
"Nearest human norm operative?"
>Patrol Officer, Corporal Lisa MacConnel. Weapon of choice... shotgun. Can be on-scene within ten minutes.<
"Provide human norm operative with explosive shells. Terminate target when he attacks lapinemorph. Obtain corpse and dispose as per usual means. Send usual payment."
>Request clarification... why delay?<
"Too public. Human norm population must not witness what appears to be unintelligent animals suddenly engaging in organized violence. His termination by our operatives may leave traces of evidence leading back to us. Better to let the norms think they destroyed a rogue that was endangering only other Scabs."
>What about the lapinemorph?<
>Acknowledged. Continue with normal message traffic?<
>Colorado. Avian morph. Near norm Bald Eagle. Need approx. $20,000 for transplant surgery to repair injuries to right wing and internal organs. Shot by human norm poacher on posted national park lands.<
A second later the same voice asks the question, "Status of poacher?"
>Unfortunate victim of 'Grizzly' attack. Died on scene. Park guards unable to locate bear. Case closed.<
>New York. Cervidae morph, mid degree. Need approx. $12,000 for operation and re-training to correct larynx and hoof/hand deformities. Unable to use voder or grasp objects effectively. Presently unemployable.<
>Covert Agent 'BlackWing' requests retirement. Six months duty period reached.<
"Identify agent and surveillance assignment."
>Near norm South American Fruit Bat. Mission: nightly watch on local Scab hangouts. Carries miniature audio/visual gear on body harness. Superb performance evaluation.<
"Approved. Add agent to our next shipment to the Brazilian Rain forest preserve. Has his replacement been assigned yet?"
>Agent "BlueFlash" finishing training. High degree avianmorph, species Blue Jay. Should be on site within two weeks.<
>Security leak identified. Data recovered. Compromised files either destroyed or moved to more secure locations. <
"Status of security leak?"
>Neutralized. Compatible 'companion' identified and in place. All other threats terminated as per your orders.<
>Will you be on-call this weekend at the clinic? <
>We’ve obtained that test subject you asked for.<
>We intercepted a high degree lapinemorph inroute to the Rabbit Hutch Colony. We altered the commitment papers and they won't be expecting her until Tuesday afternoon at the earliest... not that they bother counting them any way.<
>You’ll have the entire weekend to try out the new treatment. If it works we'll just make sure that her paperwork vanishes for good and...<
[loud knocking on a locked door]
A single waved gesture causes the words ‘END TRANSMISSION’ to appear a second before the screen goes black. As the knocking continues the tiny wooden casket box is lowered tenderly into a desk drawer and the lab coat clad crocodile morph stands up.
The floor vibrates in rhythm to his steps as he walks across the room and opens the door. Bending forward to avoid the door frame he looks down at well dressed black furred wolf morph who's paw like hand is still poised to strike the door.
Before the angry Scab can open his muzzle the green scaled paws reach down and carefully reposition the time worn baret on the canine head. A nearly imperceptible flash of fear and memory gleams in the wolfish eyes as the clawed hands move towards his face.
Swallowing deeply the wolf morph shivers slightly as the moment is forgotten and his anger returns.
“Damn it doctor! I've been waiting downstairs in the lobby for almost an hour! The hospital will start charging me overnight parking if I don't leave soon. Are you coming or not?”
“I'm sorry. Were we going somewhere? The huge reptile morph replies in a quiet voice completely out of character with his great size.
“You're impossible! I told you a week ago to be ready by nine p.m. Don't tell me you forgot that we're going to the Blind Pig tonight to celebrate our anniversary! You'd forget your tail if it wasn't attached to you!”
“Yes... yes... you're right. Its been what... ten years since we started working together? I'm sorry, I was... busy... and I lost track of the time.”
“I give up!” The wolf morph replies in an exasperated tone. “You've been working for the agency for twenty years, ten of them with me, and I still can't figure you out!”
“And will you just look at this place! The agency has donated millions of dollars to the hospital for the best scientific equipment, and you still have that piece of ancient junk on your desk! When are you going to let me throw that piece of trash in the garbage and get you a better machine?”
“Don't say that, you'll hurt his feelings.” The crocodile morph replies as he gently pats the cracked and yellowed computer housing. “Old HAL has been with me at Mercy Medical for a long time. He's the only computer I've ever figured out how to use.”
“That it! Now he's gone and given it a name!” The wolf morph replies as his anger evaporates and he begins to laugh.
“Okay, doc. You win. But if I ever catch you talking to it I'm reporting you to Dr. Derksen. Maybe he can tell me what's going on in that thick scaly skull of yours! Now lets get going before the party is over.”
“Party? I thought we were just going back to the Blind Pig again for a few drinks.”
“You're right, I forgot to tell you. It seems that they're celebrating the owner's birthday tonight and most of the regulars will be there. Knowing you the crowd shouldn't bother you. You'll probably just spend the entire evening watching that lapinemorph again like you did last time.”
“Aw, yes... the white rabbit. But I doubt if he'll be making it tonight.” The crocodile morph replies automatically in a nearly inaudible voice.
“You say something?” The wolf morph replies looking upwards into the unreadable scaly features.
“Nothing. Just thinking out loud. But isn't it time for us to get going?”
“I'm ready but look at you!” He replies pointing a furry paw like hand towards the tent sized white lab coat.
"Hummmm... you're right again." The crocodile morph admits in low rumbling tone as his clawed fingers slide down his jacket front. With a delicate touch unimaginable to such primordial looking digits the buttons open and an expensive custom made suit is revealed underneath.
“You're something, doctor! Just when I think you'd just gotten lost in your own little world again, you pull a stunt like this!"
"We all have our little secrets... don't we?"
“Well, you can keep your secrets for tonight. I'm going back to the car. Lets go!”
Turning on his heel the wolf morph spins around and walks through the doorway. From his posture and tone it's obvious that he could not conceive his command not being obeyed.
Meekly the tall crocodile morph follows and closes the door behind him. As they walk away the wolf morph looks over his shoulder and asks.
“Aren't you going to lock the door to your office, Jerome?”
“I lost the key years ago, Darkwolf. But I never seem to find anything missing.”
The sounds of their footsteps soon fade away into silence as they walk down the empty hospital corridor and into the night. Behind the closed door the long obsolete computer comes to life and the screen begins to glow.
As the words ‘Press Enter’ begin to flash and scroll across the screen the light reflects off a desk nameplate almost buried under long overdue paperwork.
Dr. Jerome Standards. MD, Ph.D. Chief Resident Director
Website Copyright 2004,2005 Michael Bard. Please send any comments or questions to him at email@example.com