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In the Beginning...
by Bob Stein
Bob Stein -- all rights reserved
 

"Dr. Stein!" A nurse came running into the ward, her face almost obscured by the hood of her bio-hazard suit. "We have four more patients from County General. Didn't you tell them we can't handle any more? This is a research center!"

Stein sighed deeply, momentarily fogging the faceplate of his own headpiece. "Do what you can for them, Maggie. The schools won't be converted for a few more days, and these people need help now. Have maintenance clear my office - stick the furniture outside if you have to. Have all the offices cleared. We're going to need the space. I've got sterilized sleeping bags and inflatable mattresses coming."

"We have an open bed in A."

His stomach clenched. "Who was it?"

"Joshua Landers."

Stein struggled to put a face to the name, and finally had it. "The mailman? Mid-forties, black?"

"That's him. He died about an hour ago. There was no point in calling you. He had a massive coronary - it was very quick."

Dammit! The man had been in perfect health two days ago. He had contracted the mysterious illness after coming to the aid of an elderly woman he'd found collapsed in her yard. A selfless act rewarded by painful and violent death.

"All right." Stein tried to shake off an oppressive hopelessness. "Put one of the new patients in Ward A. Has the third shift come in yet?"

"Only a few. Dr. Parker is trying to get some help from the medical college. I'm short most of my nursing staff, too. Everyone is afraid of catching the plague." She hesitated. "And Dr. Derksen is in the lab again - without a bio hazard suit."

Swearing, Stein spun around and stormed towards the lab. Fatigue was starting to take its toll, and his temper was worn thin. Throwing open the door, he saw the pale, bookish young doctor crouched over a microscope. "Bryan! For God's sake! Do you want to die? Put your hazard suit on!"

Bryan didn't even look up. "Good morning to you too, Bob."

The flip response sent Stein over the edge. "IDIOT!" He grabbed Derksen by the shoulder and yanked him back. "I told you to put your suit on!"

The young man jerked out from Stein's gloved hand, his face flushed with sudden anger. "I can't work in the damned suit! The faceplate makes the microscope almost useless, and I can't handle the fine controls with gloves on. So if you want help trying to find this murdering bug, leave me the Hell alone!"

Stein worked his mouth silently, any reply short-circuited by rage. And then all the anger drained out of him, and he sagged in sudden exhaustion. "I'm sorry, Bryan. It's just...." His voice trailed off as his eyes burned with tears. "We've lost twenty six people in five days! Kids, mothers, grandparents, all races, all walks of life. I'm having to stack people in the offices, and they still keep coming. There are only a handful of us working the epidemic - if I lost you, I don't know what I'd do."

"Gee, I'd hate to make you even more short-staffed." Bryan grinned at his friend's alarmed expression, and raised a hand to cut off Stein's protest before he made it. "I know what you mean, Bob. Thanks for caring." He sighed. "To tell you the truth, I don't think isolation does any good. I've done some air samples all around Atlanta - the virus is present in more than half of them."

"Airborne?"

Derksen nodded. "And incredibly potent. There are reports from major cities all over the world. I suspect that it's just as wide spread in rural areas and backward countries as well, we just haven't heard about it yet."

"I've never seen anything so fast - or deadly." Stein looked at the microscope. "Found any clues yet?"

The younger man shrugged. "Nothing new. You pretty much had it pegged from the start - a totally new organism that we don't have any immunity for. All of my tests come up with the same results you had - almost ninety percent infection rate across the board, whether the subjects have symptoms or not."

"This is a nightmare! Nothing seems to be effective - whatever this killer is, it has mutated so much that I can't identify the source."

"There's more to it, Bob." Derksen sat on the corner of a low table. "When I couldn't get statistics from NDC, I started calling around. The Government is trying to keep a lid on this - I got warned off more than once."

"Warned? That's stupid! We're a major research center! It's a bit late to try avoiding a panic."

"They were hiding something. I spent all last night calling around on my own, gathering numbers and dates. The first cases with matching symptoms showed up just over two weeks ago in the Houston area." Derksen looked at the older man expectantly.

"Houston?" Then Stein's eyes widened. "Oh, shit! The sciences lab at Johnson Space Research Center!"

"Exactly. Only one project is active there - the Beagle II probe samples. And guess what? I found out this morning that the lab complex has been locked down since Halloween. Seems there was a major security breech - or more likely, a catastrophic failure of the containment system."

This time Stein collapsed onto a stool and stared at Derksen's microscope. "Oh my God. The Martians have landed!"


The fifties jukebox whirred, then began to play an old country tune - "Please release me, let me go..." The fact that no one had put in money or selected a record was almost as odd as the fact that the jukebox was not plugged in.

Stein stared at the chrome and glass contraption in front of his desk, and nodded to the maintenance man who had just rolled the machine in on a dolly. "That's all for now, Tony. Thanks. And please shut the door behind you."

The song ended abruptly, and he watched with fascination as metal arms deftly plucked the record up and replaced it with a Beatles tune. "Help! Oh I need somebody! Help..."

Blinking, Stein looked down at the medical chart that had arrived with the jukebox. "Mr., ah... Franks?" There was no response at first, and he thought he might be on the end of a really sick practical joke. Then the record arm jumped suddenly and began skipping back over the same word.

"Help!" Click. "Help!" Click. "Help!" Click. "Help!" Click.

"Mr. Franks. My name is Dr. Robert Stein. You have been brought to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia. I am heading up a special research team to help people who have suffered from the same transformation that you have experienced. We are here to try and help you."

The jukebox whirred again, dropping a new disk onto the turntable. "Nobody knows the trouble I seen..."

Stein had to think a moment, then nodded. "Your case is unusual, but not totally unique. We have reports of people becoming a coffee maker, a studio sound mixer, and even a bicycle. In some ways, you are better off than most, since you have a way to express yourself."

Another selection began to play. A child's voice singing "I'm all alone in the world..." It took some effort to place it - from an old Mr. Magoo Christmas special.

"No. You're not alone." Stein stood and walked around the desk to place a hand on the jukebox's cool glass top. "I'm going to get someone else in here to work with you. Dr. Derkson, the best person on staff. He has been looking forward to meeting you."

He excused himself and let the office just as the mournful strains of 'Yesterday' began to play. As bizarre as the past few days had been, this was the most unnerving experience he had ever had. Reading about humans transformed into inanimate objects was a bit different than seeing one in person.

As he walked towards the lab, a Great Dane came galloping around a corner, massive paws sliding on the polished tile. A giggling, tow-headed five year-old girl was in hot pursuit. "Joseph! You know better than that!" Stein had to struggle to keep a straight face as the dog dropped its head. Then he looked at the child. "And you aren't helping things, Andy. You're supposed to be the grownup, remember?"

"Sorry, doctor." The little girl flushed. "He started it, though!"

Stein raised his hand. "I don't care who started it. Both of you back to the activity room. No running in the halls, OK?" The dog and the child nodded and shuffled back the way they had come.

Shaking his head, Stein continued to the lab. As normal as they looked, those two were almost as strange as the jukebox. Fifteen year-old Joseph Mallory had been a typical red-haired ninth grader until he woke up as a mature Great Dane three days ago. And the adorable little blonde girl was Andrew Taylor, a black thirty-six year-old warehouse worker who had lost both his male organs and thirty years the day before.

He paused at the end of the hallway, listening to the sounds around him. The noise belonged to a zoo or farm. However, every bark, bellow, chirp, and whinny was coming from a formerly human throat. People had started to change on April 19th, 2002, and a week later, there was no sign it was stopping.

Pushing through into the lab, Stein found Bryan studying a computer screen. "Gordon Franks is in my office. You said you wanted to spend some time with him."

"Great!" Derksen grabbed a small box. "I had a friend bring over some metallurgy equipment. Hopefully, Franks will allow me to take a sample of his body. Does he seem lucid? Can he communicate at all?"

"He plays songs. Had a pretty amazing variety just in the few minutes I talked to him. I'd like to know if he has a limited library of records, or if he can create what he needs."

"I'll see what I can find out. You coming?" Bryan paused in the door and looked back at him.

"No. I think I am onto something here. Give me a call when you are done and I'll join you." Stein headed for his own work area as Derksen left. The bizarre events of the past week had turned medical science on its ear, starting with the report last Friday of a humanoid walrus claiming to be one Ramon Diez. A walrus in Houston, Texas. And that had only been the start. Weird bestial hybrids began to appear all over the world, ranging from the faintest suggestion of horns or whiskers to victims indistinguishable from normal animals. At the same time others had become children, changed sex, turned into plants, or even juke boxes.

It was all impossible, of course. Glass and chrome could not be sentient, any more than an eighty year-old man could wake up one morning as a teenager. Yet the jukebox and the fourteen year-old octogenarian were both just down the hall.

Theories ranged wildly - the transformations were some form of spontaneous evolution, or signs of an alien attack. There were even those who claimed that magic had made a comeback, and that Ancient Gods and witches were coming back. As silly as that last sounded, a tiny percentage of the victims had demonstrated an ability to affect others - witches indeed!

While there was general agreement that the changes were connected to the Martian Flu, popular opinion was that the plague had simply had some unknown effect on immune systems. Happily, only a small percentage of the population had been affected so far. Less than five percent so far, though new cases were being reported with alarming frequency. Because of the rarity of transformations, the majority of his colleagues in the medical and scientific communities likened the phenomena to some variant of cancer, or reaction to some yet undiscovered outside influence.

Stein had different theory, one that Bryan shared. Every single transformation had occurred in someone who had contracted the Martian Flu. That was not really surprising given that most of the world's population had contracted the disease, including himself and Bryan. However, the fifteen or so percent that remained immune represented a huge number of people. Any other outside influence should have affected at least some of them.

The flat screen monitor on his desk was still displaying the video output from the electron microscope. Bryan had succeeded in isolating cellular DNA patterns from the different victims and actual animals, and was currently building up a library of sorts. They were also trying to get a selection of blood samples of untransformed Flu victims, in the morbid hope that one would eventually provide a post-transformation sample as well. That effort seemed likely to be wasted, however, as the two cases where pre-changed blood samples had existed simply showed two stable, and quite different, DNA patterns.

His vision blurred a little, and he blinked to try clearing his contact lenses. It had already been a long day, and he was feeling a bit woozy. He stretched his neck, trying to work out some stiffness. The long hours were getting to him. He'd go through one more set of screens, and then try to sneak off for a short nap.

Reaching for the keyboard, Stein was startled by the sudden sensation of weight at the end of his arm, followed by the sound of cracking plastic. A gray-brown lump had smashed the computer keyboard, a lump that hung from the end of his lab coat's sleeve. In the moment it took for him to realize that it was his right hand, the dark mass swelled out and assumed a completely new and easily recognizable shape - a massive equine hoof.

Sick dread filled him, and he stumbled back from the workbench as his clothing began to tighten. "Oh God, no!" The only victims he had seen with total hand loss had completely transformed into animals. In a few minutes, he was going to be a horse.


Stein looked around in desperation, trying to think of something, anything he could do in his last minutes as a human being. Why hadn't he prepared for this? The possibility of change had always been there - both he and Bryan had been exposed to the disease more than almost anyone else had in the world. Yet he had not transcribed notes, written down theories - that was something for later.

Now he was out of time. All Bryan would have left would be some scribbled ideas and a post-transformation blood sample. Blood sample! Stein's despair was pushed aside by the sudden realization of an opportunity. No one had ever had the chance to do tests on someone in the middle of a change. The process was too unpredictable and fast.

Damn! He was surrounded by state-of-the-art equipment but he needed two hands to work most of it. Bryan. He needed his partner here. Running to the phone, he pushed the speakerphone button and then his office extension. One ring. Two rings. Dammit! Bryan would probably think it was a message for him, and let the voice mail pick up. Stein's right arm was hanging down to his thigh, the elbow already reversed. As his shoulder started to pull and shift downward, he slammed the handset down and punched the intercom button.

He had to think fast - a call for help would bring in too many people. "Dr. Derksen. Please come to the lab immediately. You have a new patient in progress. Dr. Derksen. Come to the lab now." There. He hoped that would do. In the meantime, he could try to get some samples on his own.

There was no possibility of doing this by the book. Setting up a hypo was a two-handed operation. Instead, he staggered over to Bryan's workstation and dumped out a box of microscope slides. Two of them broke, and he pressed his forefinger against a shard to cut himself. He winced as it penetrated, then let the blood drip onto three slides. Dropping another slide on top of the first as a cover, he pushed it into the slot on Bryan's electron microscope and started the digital recorder. He focused frantically, then twisted around and dropped covers on the other two slides.

The lab doors burst open and Bryan cam running in, out of breath. "Bob, what is..." His face turned pale, and his eyes dropped the fully-formed foreleg that was now touching the floor. "Oh shit!"

Stein gestured impatiently with his remaining hand. "I have some slides here - get them into cryo! There's another slide in the 'scope now, and I have the recorder on."

The younger man shook off his obvious shock and ran over to the counter. "Talk to me Bob, tell me what is going on." He picked up the slides and carried them to the liquid nitrogen-filled dewar, not taking time to put on gloves. Yanking off the lid, he pulled up the rack and carefully positioned the samples on the top shelves, then dropped the rack back inside.

"My right hand changed first, almost completely a hoof as soon as I noticed. I've getting bigger all over, my clothes are getting really tight." Stein tried grabbing at his belt to undo it, but couldn't get his left arm to flex enough. "Damn! It's so fast! Get a hypo and try to get as much blood as you can."

"Spit on some slides for me!" Bryan grabbed a scalpel and used it to slice through the stubborn belt, tossing the instrument aside as he ran for the hypodermics. "Keep talking!"

Stein was gaping at his chest, which was in the process of barreling out. "Uh, respiration is up, I can feel my heart pounding. Bet my blood pressure is off the charts. No pain, though. God, where is all this mass coming from?" Both arms were fully-formed equine forelegs now. "It's starting to spread up my neck."

Hands shaking, Bryan started assembling a syringe as he ran back to the transforming man. His friend and partner was now a good foot shorter. "Bob, is there anything you want me to do? Anyone you want me to say..." He hesitated, his voice sounding forced. "...goodbye to?"

Stein thought for a moment, trying to think of some appropriate last words as Bryan jabbed a needle into his arm. Whatever he might have come up with was lost as he felt his head surge upwards on the rising column of his neck. An exclamation of surprise emerged as a shrill whinny that startled both of them.

"Oh, hell!" Bryan pulled out the hypo and set it aside to pick up the scalpel again. Slashing frantically, he cut away Stein's strained coat and clothing to reveal black-furred hide. "Try to concentrate, Bob! We don't know how it works. Some of the total animals have kept their minds. Joseph Mallory still has some intelligence left! Fight the horse!"

Robbed of hands and voice, Stein dully wondered what good a human mind would be now. A dark mass was pushing out between his eyes, and vision was changing in scope and quality. Colors faded rapidly, and the lab became distorted and less detailed. Curiously, nothing looked blurred exactly. Grainier, like a computer photo enlarged too much.

The floor seemed to press against his hooves - his four hooves. Twisting an oddly flexible neck, Stein could see that his body was fully equine now. A draft horse of some kind, solid black with thick feathering. A stallion, obviously, probably a Clydesdale or Shire. Still growing, though the transformation seemed to be slowing.

An old Molly Hatchett album cover popped into his mind - the Frazetta artwork of a demon knight sitting on a black warhorse. There was irony in the realization that he was now a twin to that massive animal - a physician reduced to serving as a mount for Death Dealer.

Bryan was still running back and forth with slides and tubes, swabbing at his nostrils, using his fingers to scoop saliva from Stein's ponderous, thick lips. The young man's face was wet, and his voice was strained. His friend was still talking, trying to maintain contact. Stein tried to focus on what Bryan was saying, but the words seemed blurred somehow. He could pick up the concern and grief, though, and nuzzled his friend's shoulder as he took another blood sample.

The smells were bad. Chemical, metal, dust - plus the underlying stink of fear. He laid his ears back and pawed at the hard ground, becoming annoyed by the human's prodding. Stein was dimly aware that the stallion was winning, that his thoughts and feelings were being filtered through equine comprehension. No! He tore suddenly at the thickening haze, struggling to reclaim his fading human identity. Not a horse! Not an animal! A shrill equine scream sounded in his ears, a cry that came from his own throat.

The doors of the lab flew open - one of the nurses must have heard him. Stein recoiled instinctively, banging hard against the workbench behind him. Test tubes and equipment clattered the floor, startling him again, and the workbench doors shattered as he lashed out with a hind hoof. The woman cried out, and Bryan started shouting. Confused and frightened, the Shire stallion caught a glimpse of light from the still-swinging doors and bolted.

His hooves slipped on the slick surface outside the barrier, and there were walls all around him, too close. More screams and shouts, and people running towards him. Panic took over, and he charged towards what looked like an opening. Halfway down the corridor he had to swerve to avoid hitting another person who stepped out of a room without looking. The sudden movement was too much for his limited traction, and his legs went out from under him.

There was an audible snap as he went down, and pain exploded in his head. He screamed and struggled to get up, not understanding why his right foreleg would not respond, why there was so much hurting. Flailing legs knocked holes in the wall, and the smell of his own blood only crazed him further. Then the noise and pain and fear suddenly faded away, swallowed up by darkness that rose up and engulfed him.


Pain. Pressure. Darkness. Breathing was difficult, as if someone was standing on his stomach. His mind was fogged, unable to process the simplest command to move an arm, wiggle a finger. There was just the pain and pressure, and dim awareness of his own existence as he faded in and out of consciousness.

Voices, mostly mumbling and whispers that were oddly clear yet undecipherable. An ever-present dull ache in his right arm had grown to a throbbing pain. His eyes were open - he could feel them blink, even if the sensation was somehow wrong. However, he remained in darkness. Was he blind? Fear flickered in his mind, only to be overwhelmed by the effort required to fill his aching lungs. He hovered at the edge of unconsciousness, unable to escape hurting or the frightening shortness of breath.

Fire seared constantly in his arm now, stoked to an inferno by any attempt to move. He was aware of smells, some sharp and unpleasant, others oddly comforting. Some of the comforting odors became associated with soothing sounds, voices that were often tinted with sadness. The sounds they made danced around the grasp of comprehension, teasing him. It was annoying at first, but he soon found that the challenge of trying to decipher them provided a distraction from his constant misery.

The female was back. He heard her start to speak, the normal steady dialogue that he had been trying to concentrate on for many such visits. Something was different this time. "And Tom leaped into the control cabin of his latest invention, desperately trying to get it moving. His friend Bud's life was in danger, and it was up to the boy inventor to save him. The amazing vehicle leaped into the sky..."

Words. He knew these words. She was reading from 'Tom Swift and His Diving Seacopter' - one of the old kid's books from his youth that he still enjoyed reading. An image of the garish cover popped into his mind, expanding into an image of a cluttered, dusty bookshelf and then a wider view of a comfortably furnished, if less than neat, office.

Stein was almost overwhelmed by a sudden onslaught of memories. His fragile connection with consciousness flickered, but he was able to fight against the darkness that swirled threateningly around his mind.

"That will show those bums, shouted Bud. Let's get them, Tom!" Cynthia was the one reading to him. His long-time secretary sounded tired, and her voice was raspy. How long had she been sitting here reading aloud? And why?

He struggled to put together confused memories. Something had happened in the lab. An accident? No, something had happened to him. The hoof. Stein felt sick as he relived the transformation in his mind. Memories were sketchy after he dropped to all fours, but he could recall fear, falling, and pain.

Another scent and another voice - Bryan. "How's he doing today? Any sign of movement?" His friend's voice was a welcome sound, even if he couldn't respond.

Cynthia sighed. "Nothing. I've been watching him, but he doesn't seem to know I am here." She burst into tears. "Dammit! It's not fair, Bryan! He worked so hard, and did so much for all of us. Why did Scabs have to turn him into a horse? He's going to die right here in his own hospital, as an animal."

"He isn't going to die here." Bryan's voice was bitter now. "The board has voted five to four to send him to the Atlanta Equine Clinic. Looking out for his best interests, they say."

"Dr. Stein is not an animal!" Cynthia sounded angry. "He is the director of this research center, and one of the finest medical minds in the country! How can they do this?"

"It's actually better than some of the other options they considered. Would you believe that bastard LeDieux actually suggested euthanasia?"

There was a shocked silence that mirrored Stein's own reaction. Not that he and Emille LeDieux had ever gotten along - still, murder seemed a bit hard to understand.

Cynthia found her voice again. "I will kill anyone who tries it, Bryan. I mean it."

"Don't worry, the board fired him on the spot just for making the suggestion. If they hadn't, I would have quit first and brought them all up on conspiracy charges, second." Bryan sighed. "However, they won't keep him here, either, and to be honest, I have to agree."

"What?!"

"If Bob was a normal horse, he would have been put down on the spot. The bone severed the major artery and tore tendons and muscles when it shattered. Even with all the surgery, he'll never walk again. I seriously doubt he could even stand on his own."

Cynthia's voice was soft. "Oh, God. I knew it was bad, but..."

"It's not just that." Bryan hesitated. "Intravenous feeding just isn't enough for an animal... a being of his mass. The equine center has the expertise to keep him going longer." The young man's voice tightened. "He's dying, Cynthia. And I can't do a damned thing about it."

Dying. Stein accepted the concept with surprising calm, even given his drugged stupor. The Martian Flu was a vicious enemy. It had had taken away his hands and voice, and just enough of his mind to allow unfamiliar instincts to destroy him. It would have been better to lose everything, to only know the pain and confusion without comprehension of his short and painful future.

A hand gently stroked his side. "I don't even know if he is in there any more. It might be better if he isn't." Bryan always did seem to know what he was thinking. "I've been cutting back on the morphine, hoping he might be able to respond somehow. Tapping a hoof, or even blinking an eye. It's hard enough treating a normal person in this condition - I don't even know what to look for here." The young man's voice moved close to his left ear. "I'm so sorry, Bob. We can't even say goodbye."

Stein struggled to make his unfamiliar body do something, anything. He was completely supported by straps or braces, the massive equine body limp and unresponsive. Only his mind was functioning, becoming more alert as the morphine wore off. This rising consciousness came at a price, however. The dull ache in his arm - his foreleg - was building to throbbing pain.

"When will they move him?" Cynthia was closer, and Stein felt a smaller hand press his side.

"In a few hours. They've been ready ever since we borrowed the suspension setup." Bryan patted him once more. "I'll go ahead and give him a full dose of morphine now. There's no point in him suffering."

Despite the building agony, Stein suddenly realized he did not want the pain killer. As bad as things were, he did not want to spend the last weeks or months of his life drugged into a mindless existence. There had to be some purpose he could fill, serving as a guinea pig for experimental treatments. Anything was better than ending his days as an inert lump of horsemeat.

He struggled to lift his head, and failing that, worked at making some sort of sound. A whinny, a grunt - something to let them know he was awake. Nothing happened. He was still too weak, too drugged. With some more time, he might be able to figure out this odd body. Then he felt a slight sting in his left hind leg and knew it was already too late.

The morphine started working quickly, dulling pain and then closing down his mind. Stein knew he would never wake up if he succumbed to the forced slumber, yet there seemed no way to escape. Sick with despair, he wished desperately for a voice, a way to stop the inevitable end.

He tried to dredge up memories of family and friends, wanting to find some friendly face, some happy memory to carry into oblivion. Instead, his drugged mind betrayed him with a cruel parade of equine shapes, every sort of horse, donkey, and mule imaginable. They circled his broken, still form at a gallop, neighing laughter. A last flicker of anger caused him to will that mental image up, to stand defiantly on imaginary hind hooves and meet the embrace of darkness and death face-to-face.

A wave of disorientation swept over him, and he convulsed violently. Cynthia screamed, and he heard Bryan shout something as whatever equipment was being used to support him suddenly creaked and tilted. Straps tore loose, and he lurched back and sideways, automatically throwing out an arm to catch himself.

The numbing sensation of morphine was gone. Stein felt incredibly clear-headed, and full of energy. For a moment, he thought it was some final trick of his senses. Yet the feelings of mass and strength continued. More importantly, the pain in his right foreleg was gone - in fact, he seemed to be supporting himself with it.

Still blind, he reached up with his left hand and felt his face. His fingers had little sense of touch, but he could trace the contours of an equine skull. Fingers? Horses did not have fingers. Yet he located the bandages covering his left eye and pulled it off, wincing slightly as the adhesive took fur with it. Blinking in the sudden light, he took in half of a trashed hospital room and a twisted mass of straps and stainless steel framework.

Twisting his head around amazingly far, Stein saw Bryan and Cynthia pressed against the far wall. Their eyes were wide and frightened, but there was a note of hope in Bryan's voice when he spoke.

"Bob? Do you understand me?"

Stein stood slowly, letting the pieces of broken rack fall down around his feet - hooves. A glance down confirmed that he was still the Frazetta demon stallion, somehow rearranged into a bipedal form. His first attempt to speak resulted in a very equine whicker. Concentrating, he cleared his throat and produced a booming bass voice that made James Earl Jones sound like a tenor.

"It's me, Bryan."

His partner and friend stepped forward, looking up in awe. "Are you OK?"

Stein stared at his thick, black three-fingered hands, and twisted around to see a very equine hind end and tail. As weird as it all was, he felt a rush of elation. His face twisted in what he hoped was still readable as a grin. "Actually, I could use a glass of water. I'm feeling a little hoarse."

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