© Xepher -- all rights reserved
I entered the bar at a little after 9pm in the morning. Yes, "morning." I'm nocturnal by nature, and not just since I got SCABs. For some reason, I've never been able to sleep at night and I always have to struggle to stay awake in the daylight.
I'd never been in a bar before. Well, maybe once or twice in college, but that was always just a casual thing. I'd never just up and decided "I'm going to a bar." This time it was planned. I was gonna get myself drunk!
"Drunk", another thing I'd never done. I was only 19 when I contracted the so-called "Martian Flu" and I'd decided long before that I wouldn't drink until I was of age. 2 days before my 21st birthday I became deathly ill. I had planned on going out drinking for my birthday, but Murphy rarely lets me get away with anything I plan. Tonight was no different.
I stepped into the bar and was immediately hit by the plethora of smells such places always seemed to exude. Compared, however, to the alternatives offered outside the bar.... Let's just say this was not exactly the "uptown" district of this particular city.
I looked around and was surprised by the relative cleanliness of the place. I had been expecting a literal hole-in-the-wall, but found instead a fairly respectable establishment. I saw some lupines sitting over near a wall and various other SCABs scattered about the main room. There were a few norms (surprisingly) intermixed amongst this veritable zoo. I saw the bar and decided this would be the best place to start.
I casually strolled over towards the bar and suddenly realized I didn't remember if I'd locked my truck. I decided it was best to double check, especially considering some of the things I'd seen on my way here. I turned around abruptly and managed to bump into a norm and spill her drink all over her.
"I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were behind me." I began to apologize. "I've had a bad day, and I'm a little edgy." I, despite my best efforts otherwise, played the part of the stereotypical fool and tried to help here mop the spilt drink off her blouse. Once I realized what I was doing, I was embarrassed to no end.
"It's okay, really, don't panic." she said. "I'm used to it, there are a lot of "clumsy" people in this place." She eyed the wolves I'd seen earlier.
"I really am sorry," I continued with my apology. "about the drink, and the uhh....well..." I bowed my head "I'm sorry."
"Really," She said "No harm, no foul. If you really feel that bad about it, how about you buy me a new drink and tell me why you've had such a bad day?"
"Sounds like a plan."
"Let's have a seat, shall we?"
If this had happened in just about any other setting and/or time in my life, I would've thought I was being hit on. I didn't feel that here. This lady obviously had her ducks in a row, and wasn't about to mess them up by hitting on a stranger like me. I think she was actually pitying me. Seeing the sorry state I was in, it would make sense. (Except for the pesky "little" facts that she was a norm, I had SCABs, and I had just spilt her drink on her.)
We moved over and sat down at a table away from some of the more noisy patrons. We were followed by a very large, ox of a man, who delivered my "victim" a new drink. I reached for my wallet to pay him, but he shrugged and wouldn't take the money. I would have to remember to leave a large tip before I was done for the night.
"I supposed we should introduce ourselves," my lady "friend" (I think I can safely use that word) began. "I'm Lisa Underwood." She proffered her hand.
"My name is Xepher. Pronounced like the west wind, Zephyr, spelled X-E-P-H-E-R" I introduced myself, completing the handshake.
"Xepher, is it? I take it that wasn't your given name."
"Ah, no, it's not. I guess if I'm gonna be rude enough to spill drinks on you, I should at least let you know my real name. It's James, and I'm pleased to meet you Lisa." She didn't press for a last name, and I didn't offer.
"So Xeph," She used the shortened name I hadn't heard in years, "what brings you to The Blind Pig Gin Mill?"
"Well, it's a long story actually."
"Well, it's gonna take a long while for my shirt to dry, and I'm not going out in the cold until it does. So, since you're buying drinks, and I've got some time to kill. Why don't we have at it?"
I got the distinct impression that I wasn't gonna get out of here until she heard the whole thing. It was strange really, I actually, somewhere deep inside, wanted to tell someone. I wanted to talk to someone. Something I hadn't done much of in quite a while now.
"Well, if you're gonna insist, I suppose I shall oblige. Though I warn you, it is a long one." She nodded. That warning never works.
"I actually came into this bar with a singular intention. I was gonna get myself wasted. I fully intended to saunter over to that bar and buy most of it. I've never been drunk before. In fact, I've never had a drink before. Well, save communion at a friends church when I was young, but that doesn't count."
"Why the sudden change of heart?"
"Well, today's my birthday. More importantly, today is my 21st REbirthday. I never drank underage, and I came down with SCABs a few days before my 21st birthday. My "rebirthday" happened on my 21st "real" birthday when I woke up in the hospital. Long story short, I basically decided that if there was a new me, there were new birthdays. I didn't really start off making it a big deal, but the idea grew on me and sort of became ingrained in my mind. Today, or rather, starting at midnight tonight, I'm 42 years old also. And, as corny as it sounds, 42 is my "lucky" number. In my favorite book, it was "The Answer to Life, The Universe, and Everything." So I came here for my 21st rebirthday, my 42 birthday, and because I read too much sci-fi."
"OK, I get the importance of the date, but why celebrate at a bar by getting drunk?"
"Well, I'm not one to normally get depressed, but as the years have dragged on, I'm finding that I'm not quite as "chipper" as I once was. This week has been especially hard, I'm moving to a new town, I quit my old job, etc. Top it all off with trying to navigate in this weather, and well, let's just say I've had better weeks. I'm staying in town for a couple of days befiore I move on and I realized that my 21st, and in my mind's twisted opinion, "real" birthday is tomorrow. So I decided to celebrate. Lacking my usual creativity as of late, I pondered what others do on such a date. Getting drunk seemed a fairly reasonable thing. So here I am, on this 17th day of October, in the year of our Lord two-thousand and twenty-three."
"Still though, why come here and drink? Don't get me wrong, I'm not gonna pretend to know what you've been through, but you did say you "quit" your job, right?" I nodded. "From where I'm standing, and correct me if I'm wrong, but that already puts you better off than most other people here. A lot of them can't even get jobs."
She was right, of course. This was seeming more and more like one of those fictional Zen trips from some convoluted movie.
"I know it must not be easy having SCABs," she pressed on, "but surly life's not that bad."
"No, you're right, it's not that bad. Heck, I remember bad. "Bad" was what it felt like to get SCABs in the first place. That was a bad week!"
"Really? I have to admit that I am rather curious what it's like, especially at first. See, most people here are very reluctant to talk openly about SCABs and I'd rather not get the experience first-hand, no offense."
"None taken." I said and it was true. At least she was honest. Most people just tip-toed around the subject, trying to be "polite". I was always one to prefer the blunt approach.
I grinned a little.
"What are you smiling at?"
"Oh, just something you said earlier, when I bumped into you."
"Well, something you said reminded me of what the doctor said when I first woke up with SCABs."
"Really, what was that, praytell?"
"Sounds like good advice."
"The best, it's on the cover of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"
"Can't say that I've heard of it."
"Well, you probably shouldn't have. It was a rather obscure book, even at the turn of the century. It's author, my favorite author, Douglas Adams, died the week that I had the Martian Flu."
"Well, I'm sorry to hear that. So tell me, if this doctor proffered advice from such great men, what else did he have to say?"
"Well, if you've got the time..."
She nodded, and with that, I launched into story teller mode..
I'd never felt so bad in all my life. I remember getting up to go to class on Tuesday. By "early" I mean it was a little after Noon. I ached all over and itched like crazy everywhere else. Being the ardent procrastinator I was (and am) I decided it was a great reason to skip class. I crawled back into bed and tried to get back to sleep. I vaguely remember some people poking me, some white lights, and being loaded into an ambulance.
I woke up two days later. It was Thursday, my birthday. I regained consciousness slowly. I never did like waking up. I remember the first thing was the feeling of the bed. It was soft and the sheets seemed much newer than mine. Next was the smell. Pure, unadulterated, hospital. There's nothing else that smells as uniquely clean as a hospital. Thankfully this one didn't smell as hospitals used to. It wasn't an extremely overwhelming smell of antiseptic. It was just extremely clean. This startled me. My house, is by no stretch of the word, clean. I'm not a total slob, but it is an older house, and I do subscribe to the theory of organized chaos. Needless to say, I realized I was most definitely not home. This was enough to startle my lethargic brain out of it's dreams.
My brain throttled up from "idle" to "taxi" and I attempted to open my eyes. The emphasis here is definitely on "attempted." I would later find out that my eyes had been taped shut to keep them from drying out, but at the time I just knew one thing: MY EYES DIDN'T WORK! OK, brain now goes from "taxi" to "full military power" in about 0.032 seconds (give or take). Then came the panic, I tried to reach up and grab my eyes, as any "sane" person would probably try to do. Strike three, my arms had been tied down in restraints. In hindsight, I'm very glad for this fact, otherwise I probably wouldn't be seeing much at all these days if I hadn't been restrained that day.
The panic eventually subsided, but not before thoughts of kidnapping, sleeper drugs, and various government conspiracies all ran, sprinted, somersaulted, and tap-danced their way through my thoughts. This was one of those times where having a vivid imagination was a big drawback. Anyhow, I eventually concluded that "if they were going to kill me they would've done it already", and was quite proud of myself for doing so. My brain settled back down to "cruise" and my adrenal gland was quite thankful for the respite. I decided that I was probably in a hospital, another deduction I was quite proud of at the time. In retrospect, the smell, sheets, and beeping machines, combined with the memory of the ambulance should, and I mean "should", have made that a no-brainer.
Once I decided I was in a hospital and not in some sort of CIA research facility, I decided to call for a nurse, or at least the attention of anyone nearby. It was about this point where I realized that my mouth had something in it. It took me a moment to figure it out, but it seemed to be keeping my jaw from moving. I started to freak out again, but realized I probably broke my jaw having seizures or something. "Man," I thought (completely unaware of the truth of it), "Today must be Thursday, I never could get the hang of Thursdays". While I wasn't able to open my mouth and actually yell for a nurse, I did manage to moan rather loudly. Again, my ego decided this was an accomplishment of considerable merit and bumped my pride up a few notches.
I heard the voice of a nurse, well I assume it was a nurse. She was saying something to the effect of "Don't try and move, I'll go get the doctor". I tried to communicated my desire to be unstrapped and this thing removed from my mouth and face. Of course, "moan-moan-MOOOOAANNN-Moan" loses something in translation. The nurse tried to calm me down, I guess she thought I was having a seizure or something. She kept telling me not to try and get lose, and to settle down. "Yeah, right," I thought, "I've been chained up here for who knows how long, and you want me to stay like this? Not happening." Of course the translation on this fared no better then my previous "statements". I eventually gave up and decided I'd wait for the doctor.
What can I say, he was a doctor, and I was waiting for him. It was inevitably a long wait. This was surprisingly reassuring to me. One thing you can always count on in the medical community is having to wait inordinate amounts of time to be seen. This assured me that, I was indeed, in a hospital. Just as I was about to dismiss this "doctor" as some sort of myth dreamed up by the CIA to keep me calm, he appeared. Now, I say "appeared", but it was more of a "sounded". With my eyes taped shut I couldn't see squat. I heard the doctor enter the room and ask a few questions of the nurse. Just the typical stuff like blood pressure, heart rate, etc. I found it odd that they were talking loud enough that I could easily hear them, yet used all the demeaning 3rd person pronouns. They were very good at acting like I wasn't there, or at the very least, that I couldn't hear them. I wonder if they offer a course in that at med school.
By now I was more than a little miffed. I was tied down, eyes taped shut, and then the two "morons" (my personal opinion at the time) had decided I wasn't even there. The doctor came over and proceeded to give me the whole song and dance routine that apparently passes for "bedside manner".
"Hello Mr.......ummm..James, do you mind if I just call you James?"
I had one of those "odd" last names, some obscure Barvarian name dredged up through history by the smallest of clans. It was one of those names that's so deceptively simple that everyone thinks that it must be hard to pronounce, then proceeds to prove the point. I guess I really shouldn't have blamed the doctor for giving up. Heck, I probably should've given him extra brownie points for knowing when he was beat. I didn't though, I was "miffed", and rapidly approaching "irked". When one is irked, one does not do or remember anything useful. I, of course, tried to properly pronounce my last name. Needless to say I failed miserably, thus adding to my frustration. Eventually I just gave in, indicating with some nods that I could go by "James" for now.
"Well, James" The doctor continued, "you've been very sick recently."
The word "Duh" seemed to echo through my cranium.
"You contracted what we are now calling "The Martian Flu" sometime last year as I understand it."
I nodded. And I thought that had been a bad week.
"Well, unfortunately, once people become infected with the Flu, it seems to stay in their system. The infection can lead to "relapses" at later dates and often the relapses are much more serious then the original infection. The relapses that have been reported recently have also shown many curious "side-effects". This seems to be the case concerning your condition also."
I noticed a nifty, how-do-I-say-this-nicely, pause before he used the word "side-effects". Why are doctors never to the point? They always sugar coat something so much that the sheer anticipation can be more deadly then the disease. I expressed my anxiety with some more moaning and added some uncoordinated thrashing for good measure.
"I'm going to untape your eyes now," the doctor warned, "but since you've been in the dark for the past couple of days and with your current condition, it's probably going to seem quite bright at first, so take your time trying to look around."
I felt the doctors hands working on the tape around my eyes. It felt like my eyebrows were gonna come off along with the tape. Eventually, after much pain and suffering on my part, the tape came off. I chose to take the advice the doctor had proffered and opened my eyes very slowly. This was where I was expecting the obligatory panic moment to be. In all the stories, movies, shows, etc. this is where the poor sap always sees something to freak him out. In the outer limits all the doctors are pigs. In the dramas, the character is horribly disfigured. And in the action flicks, the CIA agents are all standing around with guns and truth serum. I got gypped. I saw exactly this. White ceiling tiles, a mask on my face with a breathing tube into it, and the doctor. The only "disturbing" thing I noticed was on what little I could see of my face and nose. I surmised that I probably got bruised up from falling or a seizure, or perhaps this infection had headed to my sinuses.
I looked up at the doctor. He looked to be a kindly gentleman, in his mid 60s or so. He had graying hair, the obligatory glasses, and the equally obligatory paunch. His nametag read Dr. Benjamin F. Pierce and proclaimed him "Director of Research" at the university's medical school.
I continued to look around as best I could. My movement was severely limited as my neck was still aching horribly. I noticed the nurse had apparently left and that I was in a fairly large, private room. It had all the niceties of home, a TV in the corner, some chairs for visitors, and I even glimpsed a small bathroom connected by a thin doorway. This was bad news. This meant I was probably going to be here a while. I could sense the impending doom in the air. I figure it's much the same feeling a dog gets when it's time for the vet. Everyone is being extra nice, they feed the dog, take it for a car ride. Then there's the nice clean office, with the clean room, and fresh food and water. All this should be heaven for a dog, but it knows something is amiss. It's not supposed to be treated this nicely, something is wrong! I felt the same way. The doctor was talking all nice, the room was nice, and this all meant that I was, of course, royally screwed!
I had let my imagination get carried away again. Finally the logic part of my brain was able to sedate the rest, and I calmed down, thinking "I am not a dog. People don't get treated like animals. They'd tell me if something was really wrong." and so forth.
"I'm going to take this...mask off your face now so you can try to talk." Warned the doctor. And he did say it like a warning. I wondered why he kept pausing before certain words. "Don't try anything at first, just get used to the regular air without the added oxygen." He started fiddling with straps behind my head and I closed my eyes to avoid getting them poked. He got the mask off, and, well the earlier comment about this hospital not smelling like antiseptic was completely wrong. This place reeked of it. In fact, this place just plain reeked of everything. Gah, I was quite convinced that the hospital had gotten the land cheap on account of it being an old E.P.A. Superfund Project or something. There were way too many chemical smells from everything. I choked a few times and the doctor almost attempted to put the mask back on, but I eventually was able to bear it without hacking too much.
When I finally stopped coughing I opened my eyes again. Apparently the doctor had just removed part of the mask. I nice portion of my vision was still blocked. I guessed that he had just removed the tubes, but then remembered him undoing straps behind my head. I wasn't sure what to think. I glanced over at the doctor and saw him coming out of the bathroom with a small hand mirror.
"I'm gonna let you see how you look now James. I just want to warn you, you've changed quite a bit since you got sick, so keep calm and Don't Panic."
"Don't Panic!" I was gonna like this guy after all. "Don't Panic" were the words that so wonderfully graced the cover of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" quite possibly my favorite book of all time. Great advice too, as I realized that most of my time since waking had been spent in said panicking. It's amazing really, this one little comment kinda snapped me out of my near hysteria and brought be back down to earth, as it were. My adrenal gland throttled back down to "cruise".
When the doctor finally brought the mirror in front of my face, an odd thing happened. I saw my reflection. My adrenal gland decided to go to full "afterburner", several small parts of my psyche jumped off their respective bridges and skyscrapers, and my stomach decided to join the circus as an acrobat. Outwardly I didn't react at all. 3 seconds later my jaw dropped, and I do mean dropped. Realizing that my mouth was open about 3 times it's normal max was enough to send the few surviving pieces of my "reason" scrambling for the nearest fall-out shelter (where they found my already cowering ego). About 19 seconds later the reptile cortex in my brain (who was just now discovering what all the hubbub was about) decided the only appropriate reaction was "The Scream" I (mentally) saw my face contort into an exact replica of the painting by the same name. My larynx then got in on the action and decided we needed audio with the visual. I screamed. Rather, I tried to scream. Either way it sounded very little like a scream. What it sounded like, if such a sound were to be written in English that is, was a very loud, very long, and very scary "RRAARRRWWW!"
Needless to say, the doctor jumped, the nurse (who was just entering again) jumped and I'm sure anyone within 10 klicks jumped. Even I, and the bed I was attached to, jumped! All the little earth-diving pieces of my brain stopped in mid-air, wondering where they were, my adrenal gland had a flame-out, my stomach was thankful for the safety net, and my r-cortex just looked around like "I didn't do it!"
Several seconds and many eons later Dr. Pierce spoke. "Wow, that was....umm..something, wasn't it?" He quickly regained his composure though, and was soon barraging me with questions.
"Can you hear me? Can you move your toes?" or other, less quantifiable questions. "How do you feel? What does everything look like?" etc. Eventually though, he came to the important one. "Can you speak?" Up until now, this question had not been "discussed". I was just starting to realize this myself. I honestly didn't know if I could still talk or not. I guess I was still in shock from scaring the pants off myself with my own "voice". I started feeling around in my mouth with my tongue. Everything was certainly screwy. All my teeth were relatively sharp compared to before, I also noticed that my mouth was about 2-3 times as deep as it was before. I decided to give it a shot.
I opened my mouth to speak, then rapidly closed it. I was suddenly struck with a thought along the lines of "These are going to be my first words. I've gotta say something funny, or at least quotable." I'm still amazed at myself for that. I was going through what was arguably the most panic ridden day/moment of my entire life, and here I was, thinking about posterity. My old "self" was coming back quite quickly, now that my adrenal gland was on vacation. I never was very prone to panic and I always did enjoy a good joke. Heck, for that matter, I had picked a major for the sake of a joke. Freshmen year I had decided on aerospace engineering, not for my love of planes, but because I thought it would be really funny to one day be able to answer someone with "Why yes, actually I am a rocket scientist." The major turned out to be a mistake, but I still swear I'm gonna find a way to use that joke someday.
I spent the next few minutes trying to think of a suitable quote for my "first words". I debated all my favorites, the Hitchhiker's Guide, Einstein, the Bible, and even Animaniacs. I eventually decided. Apparently something "epic" had happened to me, so something "epic" was called for. I opened my mouth to speak. I had chosen the opening line from Babylon 5 - Season 5, what better epic was there?
"And so it begins..." was how it was supposed to go, but instead came out something like "Rand thow ithd regrins..." Dr. Pierce looked at me quizzically, as though he were trying to figure out if I was indeed speaking, or just making random animal noises. He seemed to decide on the former, much to my delight.
"What did you say?"
"I thad 'rand thou rit regrins'! ritsh a wote thum whabyhon sive"
This whole "talking" thing was going to take some definite work I decided. Dr. Pierce realized this too, and decided it was best to leave me to work things out on my own for a little. He started to leave the room just as I was able to climb over my battered ego and try talking again.
"eeey, thon't cho! hat avout thees sthaps."
"thake theese sthaps ooff pwease" I pleaded as I nodded towards my wrist.
I nodded enthusiastically. Man, and I SO hate charades, even to this day.
"Well, they're for your own safety, you're not used to that body yet, and you might hurt yourself."
"I whill bee oakay"
He considered my request for a moment, then left the room. I was just about ready to try roaring again, when he reentered, followed by a nurse. This one was a big burly guy, an orderly I suppose. Apparently they were very worried about "my" safety. The orderly removed the muzzle, which I had earlier assumed to be a regular O2 mask, from the bed and proceeded to loosen the straps binding my furry wrists. (Though I mention it casually here, the actual process of discovering that my wrists were furry was almost enough to bring on another episode of shock.) I slowly raised my...well... I'll stick with the word "hand" for now.
I looked at my hand. It was most definitely not my hand. It was covered in gray fur with black spots here and there. It had 4 distinct ridges running down the back side of it. I turned it over and saw that the palm was covered with thick, black, rough skin, much like the pads on my dogs feet. I found that there was a thumb, of sorts, hidden along the side. For some reason, the fact of finding an opposable thumb, albeit a very distorted one, filled me with relief. "This is not my hand." the realization set in, "This is my...... paw!" Talk about your epiphanies!
I examined my paw (the word still felt weird) further. It turned out that I did in fact have a nice, opposable thumb, something I am very grateful for. Other then the small thumb on the side of each forepaw, I pretty much had (and have) very feline paws.
This was the point where it got, for lack of a better word, interesting. My curiosity was most definitely peaked. Heck, I was down right anxious to figure out what had happened. I reached over for the hand mirror Dr. Pierce had left on the table. Well, long story short, gravity always wins. The orderly more or less picked me up and put me back in the bed, and was then kind enough to give me the mirror that gravity had used as bait.
I brought the mirror up and began to examine the reflection. Thankfully my r-cortex decided to stay out of things this time, and I'm sure my fellow patients were glad for it. As I examined the reflection I felt very, detached. It took me several moments before I began to accept that this was my reflection. This was going to be me for...well... who knew how long? Once I decided I could deal with this thing in the mirror being "me", I took a much closer look at myself.
I looked at my face, it was gray with black spots, just as my paws were. The fur was fairly long, but not "shaggy" as is often the case with long fur. I saw that I had a very feline muzzle, complete with sharp teeth, black nose, and whiskers. Curiosity overcame reason, and I very quickly learned that it hurts when you pull on a cat's whiskers. I swear, I really did know that before hand, I guess my brain just wasn't quite up to playing encyclopedia quite yet. Other than a brief "eep" elicited by the aforementioned whisker incident, the whole thing was a quiet (rather dull even), affair.
I proceeded to examine the rest of my body in a similar manner. My feet caught my attention for a few moments. They were almost entirely feline, no evidence of a 5th digit at all, save perhaps the small claw a ways up my ankle. The realization dawned on me, I wasn't just going to have to learn to talk, I was going to even have to learn how to walk again. Epiphanies seemed to be coming by cargo-plane that day.
The rest of my body was more or less feline too. I still wasn't over the weirdness of it all. I'm not sure I'm over it now days even. I took one last look over my new self. It was odd. All of me was furry. Shorter on my back and sides maybe, but a good 3 inches long on most of my stomach and tail. At that point something "dawned" on me. OK, it didn't just "dawn" it grabbed my intellect, threw it against a wall, said some mean things about it's lineage, then pointed out a very important oversight. I immediately, and with no modesty what-so-ever, threw back the cover and looked down at my...err...self. Well, I'll say this. All, and I do mean all, of me was furry!
I eventually regained my composure, and was thankful that fur hides blushing. I recovered myself and laid back down, with the intention of pondering my current predicament. My stomach, of course, would allow no such "idleness". I decided to try and get some food.
First I tried talking. The orderly just smiled and nodded, (I know they must teach that as a course) and, as a general rule, was no help what so ever. I thought about trying to write something, but aside from the obvious lack of pens/pencils/paper etc. I realized that it had taken me several minutes to even find my thumbs. I seriously doubted my ability to use them for anything more coordinated than nose-picking. (Which, by the way, was not only difficult, but also quite painful.)
"Well," I thought, "if I can't get any food or rest, maybe I can start learning to walk." Remembering my previous encounter with gravity, I decided to take it slow. With 2 forepaws firmly gripped around the bed rail, I placed my feet on the ground. I stood up slowly. Something just didn't feel "right" about it. It took me a moment to realize, but I figured out I was still trying to keep my "heals" on the ground. Once I gave up on that idea, my new feet suddenly made more sense. I stood up, and, to my surprise, I was about the same height as usual. I had figured that with the drastically shortened legs I would've lost about a foot or so, but permanent tip-toeing on 18 inch "feet" certainly takes up the slack.
Now for my epic "First Step". (Dang, someone had let my ego out of it's cage again.) I reverently lifted my left foot. Slowly, gracefully, I moved it forward and placed it, ever so distinctly, back on the floor. I released my grip on the bed-rail and, bravely, raised my right foot. I, with great perseverance, moved it forward, and I, "Majestically" achieved another epiphany: Linoleum tastes bad! Really, it's true. Gravity always wins. My ego went back to it's cage and was there given a stern talking to by most of my joints and also received a quick kick from my now genuinely bruised face.
The orderly tried to help me back up, but I was in no mood to be helped, so after much "talking" I convinced him to let me be. I laid on the floor a while, pondering the meaning of life, questioning things. There were of course the predominate thoughts of "what now?" and "Why me?". After a moderate period of introspection I had another insight concerning linoleum: It is not comfortable to lay on either.
I decided my best course of action would be to crawl back to the bed. I rolled over onto my stomach and proceeded to bring myself up onto my hands and knees. Five minutes of introspection, and I'd already forgotten I wasn't human. I pushed up with my hands and then tried to bring my knees up under me. Two thoughts struck me almost simultaneously. One was that my knees did not reach anywhere near the ground, and the second was that my toes reached it perfectly. Why I didn't see this sooner, I'm never quite sure. I guess it just gets chalked up to stress or what have you. Anyhow though, I was now on four feet, or rather, "paws".
I tried walking, extremely cautiously, I might add. It was about this point where I became aware of my tail. Sure, I'd noticed it before now, but now I really saw what it was for, balance! To my (and my face's) great pleasure, it worked wonderfully! Sure, I wasn't gonna be winning any races or anything, but I was mobile. That was a great feeling. I'm sure I must've been quite a sight, stumbling over my own feet like a drunk, my face all bruised up, and smiling (pardon the expression) like the cat who ate the proverbial canary! I looked over at the orderly, and, judging from the bemused look on his face, I'm sure he was thinking something very similar.
I remain, to this day, very surprised with how fast I got the hang of quadrupedal locomotion. It's no wonder it's so popular in the animal kingdom. I wandered around the room for probably a good half hour before the doctor returned, this time carrying several charts and other important looking papers.
"well I see you're up and going." he said. "I don't suppose you've tried walking upright yet, have you?" I pointed to the bruises on my face, which were now starting to swell quite a bit, making the fur bristle out. He nodded, "Ah, no luck then, I take it." I shook my head and uttered, what seemed to me, a rather passable "No". I asked him about the papers he had brought with him, and, after a few attempts and some more charades he understood.
"These are some of your test results, James. I'd like to go over them with you for a few minutes if you feel up to it."
"Okray" I sputtered.
He went over to the small table in the corner. It had a few chairs around it, and was obviously intended to be used by family/friends of the current patient. Being as I was a ways from home, my family probably hadn't even been notified of anything yet. Needless to say, the chairs were empty. Dr. Pierce started laying out some of the papers on the table and I went over beside him. He asked if I'd like to sit down, and was immediately embarrassed by his own insensitivity. "I'm sorry." he said. I have to give him major points for that. It's hard enough to realize you insulted someone, but it's even harder to apologize for it, especially when they haven't mentioned it yet. I took one look at the chair and the taste of linoleum leapt right back to the front of my mind. "No soblem, I shink awwll sand." I was getting better at talking, but it was gonna be a while before I'd be behind any podium.
I decided to do something I'd always seen my dog do. I pushed up onto my hindlegs and put my front paws on the table. Gravity tried to pull a fast one, but I managed to avoid it. That accomplished, I looked down at the papers the doctor had arrayed on the table. I was, and am, not very medically inclined. Hence, as the saying goes, it was all Greek to me. Dr. Pierce, still surprised by my recent stunt, began his explanation.
"James, I'm gonna be blunt. We're really unsure what happened to you. This "Martian Flu" has the entire medical community by the...umm...throat." He seems to hesitate for a minute and I realized he was staring at my quite prominent canines. I, self-consciously, licked my lips and made sure they covered my teeth. He resumed his lecture.
"Everything we know has been turned upside down in the past couple years and every time we think we've figured something out, this weird bug pulls a one-eighty on us. Here's what we "know", and I use the term loosely, about your condition. You DNA has been altered by the virus. Some of the normally inactive parts, the "introns" have been activated, and normally active parts have been rearranged or deactivated entirely. The virus has also played with just about every other portion of your body's chemistry that we can imagine. The end result of all this, as I'm sure you're aware, is that you've become a sort of animal/human hybrid."
I grinned at this, "Duh" once again echoing in my skull. I learned something else, when predators "grin" people have a tendency to get nervous. I stopped grinning, outwardly anyway.
"So vaht dos zis mwean?" I asked him. He took a minute to make sure he understood my words. "Well," He continued, "if you're asking "is this permanent?" I'm not sure I have an answer for you. The other cases like yours that have been reported have shown no change since they first finished their, for lack of a better word, "transformation." But we really don't know anything about this disease, in fact, the more we study it, the less we even know about science period. There's even reports about some of these cases having "superpowers" some can even change shapes apparently at will. Never mind that each shape has an entirely different mass, they just do it. It's like the laws of physics just went out the window."
Wow, that was something that took a while to settle in. First of all, I was (somewhat) relieved to know that I wasn't the only one. But on top of all that there were these mysterious, physics defying, superpowers. I'd always been curious, even before SCABs, and this certainly had my attention. The doctor and I discussed, through no small amount of effort on either side, the rest of the details concerning this condition, and my condition in particular.
Through that discussion and several following over the next few days I learned a few things. I was, as I had begun to suspect, a Snow Leopard hybrid, or "morph" as that term became more popular. I was, as I also suspected, quite a bit on the animal side of the scale. I could probably pass for a natural specimen at a zoo, assuming close inspection were avoided. I'd gotten a slightly more human face (emphasis on slightly), and something that I was very grateful for, opposable thumbs. The rest of my "fingers" were webbed, much like a natural leopard, but my thumbs were free and allowed me to grip things single-handedly. Of course I had no where near the dexterity I used to, but at least I wouldn't be using two hands like some sort of chipmunk. I also had what passed for a human voice, though the "humanness" of it was still up in the air. I figured, and later had it confirmed by x-rays, that my legs were a bit modified too. I should be able to walk on two legs the doctor had informed me.
Somewhere in those few days I learned some interesting things about "Uncia Uncia" the Snow Leopard. For instance, the color-vision that I thought I had retained as part of my humanity, actually turns out to be natural for big cats. I also learned that the "roar" I had surprised everyone with, was not a true roar. It seems one of the distinguishing features of the Snow Leopard is that it can't roar, thus it's not even a member of the same family as almost all the other great cats. I supposed I had been too proud of being able to roar and I hadn't seen my ego beaten down for almost two days, so it was an appropriate time for Murphy (of Murphy's Law) to make an appearance.
The next few days went by faster and faster. I continued getting better at walking/running on four paws, and my speech was quite quickly becoming intelligible. I even started getting the hang of bipedal motion. It was quite difficult actually. It only took a couple of days before I could "walk", but it required a lot of concentration and I couldn't move too fast. The balance was just "off". I guess that's what happens when you got a tail as long as your body stickin' out of your backside. Eventually I managed to do most things that I could do before, at least as far as locomotion was concerned. I still prefer all-fours though.
I learned to write again, but alas, it was slow. I just didn't have the fine motor control that I had with fingers. I do have to admit though, it was much more satisfying to rip a failed attempt to shreds with my claws, than it had been to simply crumple it up like I used to. The pseudothumbs I got had their uses, and, don't get me wrong, I was grateful for them, but writing was not one of those uses. "Oh well," I figured, "I never had good handwriting anyway". I just decided that all my writing would now be done on computer. As for typing, let's just say that my 60 WPM typing skills suffered worse damage from this virus than my handwriting had.
I wound down from story teller mode.
"I think that's about the sum of it. I was at the hospital for about about a week and took some physical therapy to learn to "walk" and to help me learn new ways of doing old things and thanks to a brief incident in Physical therapy, my ego gave up for good. But, compared to the first few days, the rest seemed downright dull."
"Well, that sounds like it was certainly an "interesting" experience." Lisa commented.
"Yeah, to say the least, but remind me sometime to tell you about the ski trip I took the following winter!"
"I can imagine."
"Ah, but can you grasshopper? Can you?" I said in my best Zen-Master voice.
Lisa chuckled, and despite my determination to have a foul mood, I was grinning. Lisa didn't seem to mind. I guess she'd been around SCABs long enough that she didn't expect me to turn her into a snack anytime soon.
"OK," Lisa was back into her "query" mode it seemed, "but I'm wondering something, what happened to your family, if you don't mind my asking?"
"Well, as I had surmised, they hadn't even been notified, and I kept it that way while I learned to walk and speak again. I figured there was no sense in worrying them until I was at 100 percent again. They were, quite shocked however, when I returned home about 2 weeks later. I suppose I'm very fortunate compared to all those SCABs that got shunned by their families. Mine loved me in spite of everything. All in all, they took it pretty well. It took them quite a while to figure out how to act around me though. You should've seen how much my mom freaked when she realized she had been petting me as I was standing next to her. It took me almost a half hour to explain to her that she hadn't done something wrong and that I really didn't mind!"
Lisa was grinning ear to ear. "It's things like that that I enjoy hearing. The little things, when things go right. See, I'm a reporter, and don't get me wrong, I'm all for heroic acts and saving the world, but it's always the little "slice-of-life" things that I really enjoy." She said.
"Well then I'm glad I could entertain you, even if I was a bit longwinded."
"By the way, what happened in physical therapy?"
"Ah, that. Well, let's just say that you haven't seen embarrassed until you've seen a Snow Leopard with 3 inch long, normally fluffy fur, crawl out of a pool."
Lisa burst out laughing. "Well," I remarked sarcastically "at least one of us is having a good time."
Lisa managed to control her laughter (somewhat) "No really, I'm just picturing...you...with the water...and the look on your face..." She took a minute and calmed down. "OK, I am having a good time, sue me. I dare say I've enjoyed it. Though something else is still bothering me. What was that "odd Barvarian name" you had?"
"Heh, that's a funny story, albeit much shorter" The relief was visible in her eyes. I continued, "The paper work at the hospital had gotten screwed up too. Being as it was some friends that had called the ambulance they had been the ones to fill out the paper work. Well, none of the people I ran with in college were ever big on last names. So no one remembered mine. Well, I take that back, one person thought they remembered my name. What they actually remembered was a nickname I'd had for a short while that was based on my last name. Anyhow, the paper Dr. Pierce had in front of him when he first came to see me stated that I was "Mr. James Otter" Looking back I'm very glad the doc just used my first name. Anyhow, to answer your question, my original last name was "O-T-T-I-N-G" pronounced, just as it's spelled with an "aww" sound at the beginning, and a "ting" sound at the end. Not that hard, in my humble opinion."
I don't wear a watch, for obvious reasons, but I do keep a nifty timepiece on me. My chronograph beeped. Once. Wow, I'd been so distracted talking to Lisa, that I'd forgotten why I came here. It was now 1 in the am, and it was officially my birthday. I was supposed to be halfway to plastered by now. I decided to head for the bar. I explained this to Lisa and she followed me up to the bar.
"Barkeep," I proclaimed, "I'm here to celebrate, I'm gonna buy the next rou...." I trailed off after I noticed the bar tender was moving his hands in quite a flourish. Had I kept to my original schedule of inebriation, I would've never figured out that it was sign language.
"He says," Lisa helpfully translated, "That his name is Donnie Sinclair."
"My apologizes, Mr. Sinclair. I simply wanted to....." I was cut off my more signing. I looked to Lisa.
"Just "Donnie" He says"
"I'm sorry, Donnie, I seem to have misplaced my manners. I, in celebration of my 21st rebirthday, would like to buy a round for everyone in the house." The ox-man looked at me for a moment, and, seeming to decide that I was serious, brought out a small sign that said "free drinks courtesy of ______ in celebration of ______" I filled in my name and the fact that it was my birthday. By the time I finished this I noticed a wolfish fellow was already at my side taking up my offer. I looked at him a moment while Donnie hung the sign and stood in front of me.
More signing, with the translation from Lisa quickly following. "He's asking what you want to drink."
Hmm, I hadn't thought this far ahead. I had never had alcohol before and wasn't very familiar with the various drinks that contained it. I thought about asking for a menu, but realized I'd just look foolish. I instead turned to the Dalmatian on my right. I thought I'd overheard someone calling him "Bix" earlier, but I wasn't sure, so I decided to "play it cool."
"Good day, Sir. Might I inquire as to which beverage you have chosen to imbibe this evening?"
The Dalmatian looked at me oddly for a moment, and then smirked teasingly. I suddenly wished I'd asked for the menu instead.
"This, my good man," he began, slipping into comically-overblown British, "happens to be a delightful sparkling beverage, known to most as "tonic." He sounded like he just stepped out of Stratford-on-Whereveron. Just my luck, I decide to be "casually funny" with my cheesy English accent, and I wind up facing a Shakespearian actor or something. I tried to pretend it didn't happen.
" 'Tis mainly tonic, but with the slightest hint of lime, so as to give it that fanciful "citrus" quality." He broke out of his dialect and turned back to the bar. "In other words, Seven-Up for pompous jackasses. Nice accent, kid."
My ego had, once again, taken a beating. I let the conversation drop with an "Ah." and turned back to Donnie.
"What's he having?" I nodded to the wolf to my left.
Donnie's hands danced once again.
"He says that Wanderer's having a Coke." Lisa said from an increasing distance.
"Just a Coke? Not a Rum and Coke or something??"
"Hardly", answered the lupine Wanderer. "This glass is filled with nothing less than 100% non-decaffeinated, Original Coca-Cola Classic. Though where dear Donnie keeps digging up the cane sugar and Haitian lime oil is beyond me." His close-mouthed grin was almost infectious, even allowing for the pointy teeth it probably hid. Murphy had gotten me good, 2 thespians on the water wagon, figures. Normally, I would've given up and started laughing, but I was determined so I pressed on.
"Why would you come all the way down to a bar in this part of town, on a cold night, just to drink Coke?"
His answer was simple and shocking. "Why not?" He replied. "Why not?" that phrase struck a cord deep in my soul. That use to be one of my guiding "principals" as it were. I, since time immemorable, had always felt that you should never ask why, if you were not prepared to give many reasons in answer to "Why not?" It was that simple answer that had kept me going in the months after my transformation, as I lay awake questioning "Why me, God? Why Me?" God had answered too, not in some prophetic voice from a burning bush. Nothing so elaborate. He just told me, deep in my soul, what I had always known. "Why not?" I never came up with a suitable reply and so I kept that answer close to my heart for years. It had helped me avoid many an argument and many a prejudice. This was one of the many things I had started to forget as of late.
Donnie signed something again, thankfully it was fairly obvious what he said, because Lisa had apparently gone to the ladies room.
"I'll have what he's having." I again nodded towards the inadvertently profound Wanderer. Donnie's face had the faintest hint of a smile. On that face, don't ask me how, but he did, I swear it. I left a large wad of cash on the bar to pay for a bar full of alcohol...and two Cokes.
I was lost in thought by the time I sat back down at the table. Lisa sat down shortly afterward. She had apparently gotten a fresh drink from the bar on her way back too.
"I noticed that wad of cash you left on the bar. You know that's probably enough to cover the drinking of this bar for the next week?" She was definitely curious.
"Yeah, probably, but I figure Donnie is the type of person to put it to good use, besides I've got enough saved up for a rainy day or two."
"That was my next question. How, especially being an out-of-work SCAB, do you happen to be in possession of such a large sum of "pocket-change"?"
"Well, that's sorta my little secret, but I suppose there's no real harm in telling it. You remember the Beagle II probe that brought this whole mess back from Mars?" She nodded and I went on. "Well, I don't know how much you know about aerospace stuff, but it, the return module anyway, was designed with a shield for reentry. The shield was designed to absorb most of the damage done when it re-entered Earth's atmosphere. It did this by breaking up as it went. The idea being the pieces would burn up in the upper atmosphere. Well, as we've seen, it didn't work quite like they had planned. This was, after all, a turn of the century government agency we were dealing with here. The shield did break up, but in very large chunks, some of which damaged the return module as they broke away. One of these, at least this is my theory, managed to knock off one of the sample containers. I figure this happened at a fairly low altitude, after most of the heat had disappeared and things weren't in imminent danger of being vaporized. Anyhow, I don't know if you remember hearing anything about an online auction last year that involved a "possible" piece of the Beagle II?"
"That was YOU? From what I remember that thing sold for....WOW! Well, now that does make sense."
"Yup, that was me. I found the sample container, or at least what was left of it, practically in my backyard. The night before I found it I had spent standing on my roof, trying to catch a glimpse of the fiery reentry. I didn't have any luck due to, a fact that I would later discover, a failure on my part to translate from Eastern to my then local time. The next day, however, more than made up for it. I was hiking in the woods and noticed a bunch of broken branches. My innate curiosity was piqued and I went closer. I found the container, complete with a (slightly charred) nameplate proclaiming it "Beagle II". I was quite happy about this. On my way home my mind was filled with thoughts of bragging to my friends, etc. I quickly realized, however, that NASA was probably going to want this thing back. Especially since it was carrying Martian soil that "might contain agents harmful to terrestrial life" so I decided to keep my little discovery to myself and did so until I decided to sell it online last year. I hardly ever get sick, but on the day the probe returned I was just getting over a nasty sinus infection. I came down with the Flu 2 days later, and on the same day, learned that Douglas Adams had died the night the probe came back."
"You mean that you had the container responsible for releasing the Martian Flu?"
"Well, yes, and no. I had one of the containers responsible. Several others were lost during the reentry and were never recovered. These were much more likely to have spread the virus around the world. Especially since they probably broke up somewhere in the jet stream. As for me, personally, I'm fairly sure that my case of the Flu was quite likely caused by the little "trinket" that I'd found. I figure it's only fair that it should finance my future, after trying to steal it from me so many times."
"Well, I can certainly see that, but still... I really would feel better if you had turned that thing into NASA. Just in case this whole fiasco could've been prevented."
"Yeah, I often think about what might have been if I'd simply slept late instead of hiking that day. Who knows, I might still be human. Heck, everyone might still be human. Then again, it might have changed nothing, I might simply be a broke snow leopard instead of a moderately wealthy one. I believe that in life, everything happens for a reason. I am me, for better or worse. If I had made different decisions at any point in my life, then I would no longer be me."
We both sat in silence for a moment. My long forgotten "hope" had started to return. I opened my mouth first. "Let me ask you a question, if you don't mind." She indicated she didn't mind in the least and I continued after taking a sip of my Coke. "Why do you hang out here? I mean, you're a norm and a quite attractive one at that. Why would you come to a bar in this part of town, and one that's full of SCABs no less?"
You know, for the second time in as many hours I was becoming optimistic, something that hadn't happened for months. There may be hope for this planet (and me) yet.
Why not indeed!
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