|This story is set in the Tales From the Blind Pig universe, in which an extraterrestrial disease called Martian Flu has unusual effects on a significant number of its victims -- Stein's Chronic Accelerated Biomorphic Syndrome, SCABS for short. The coming of Martian Flu was one of the most significant events in human history, so of course it's remembered, even decades after the fact...
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©2002 Ironhorse -- all rights reserved
She swooped down on victim after victim, catching them at the first sign of weakness, then taking what she wanted before returning to her perch to search for another. I watched it go on for several minutes from the safety of my dark corner, amused by how she made them squirm. Distracted by my musings, I mistakenly made eye contact and became next on her list.
As you can tell, I'm not fond of reporters, but I heard good things about this one. Her very presence here is a mark in her favor, since the Blind Pig Gin Mill is a haven for SCABs, and only the more tolerant humans frequent it. I fumbled a moment with my vox-box, since I'm mute otherwise. "Hello Miss..."
She offered her hand. "Lisa Underwood."
"Mike Tolanski, but everyone calls me Zero." As we shook I noticed her pulse was slightly higher than normal for humans, but put it off to the usual.
I'm a Dolphin-morph, and most people I meet think I'm cute, despite the fact I'm seven feet tall, discounting my tail, and mass about 400 lbs. It's mostly the smile; I always have this big dopey grin on my face, and I lack the facial muscles to change it. People tend to anthropomorphize my face, pun intended, and ascribe to it feelings of friendship and happiness. It's both a blessing and a curse -- how would you feel if no one ever took you seriously? -- but it does get me out of speeding tickets. Luckily I am one of the rare SCABs who can fully shift into different forms so if I really need to I can quite literally wipe the smile off my face, but it costs me later. So most of the time I stay in my 'default' shape. Over the years I've grown accustomed, if not fond of it. Besides no one ever suspects dolphins of being mischievous.
"What can I do for you?"
Pulling up a chair, she placed a small recorder between us and switched it on. I blinked a couple of times as I got used to the EM field. Another drawback of my shape, I can sense electromagnetic radiation, just like a real dolphin. That's why I sit as far away from the bar TV and lights as possible, it's too bright.
"My paper is doing an anniversary retrospective on SCABS; from the initial outbreak to the role of SCABs in today's society. I'm collecting stories about peoples' first change. If you don't mind, could you describe what happened when the virus first manifested? What was it like? How did the people around you react?"
I took a long sip from my drink before cuing the flashback.
March 15, 2003
I was dead, or close to it, but not close enough to merit skipping class. I had a policy: Never skip class if you can still walk. Sounds stupid I know, but when every credit of your MSEE degree is paid though a combination of scholarships and slave labor as a research assistant, it gives you a new perspective on things.
The rest of Michigan State's campus didn't share my work ethic. Lots of students began skipping classes when the first cases of Martian Flu were reported in Australia, and some had already left for home by the time it hit the States. Our idiot school president tried to assure everyone that MSU could handle any outbreak, and as a public relations stunt made class attendance mandatory, 'to promote calm in the community'. Some of our professors weren't as stupid, but lots of foreign students had nowhere else to go, and even some locals like myself were stranded when FEMA restricted travel a week later.
Unfortunately our professor, Dr. Pang, believed that old adage about idle hands and devil's work, and kept holding class. Even though the last week or so I had been fighting the flu, that Friday evening I lurched into quantum physics class like some zombie freshly summoned from my grave, and I wasn't the only one. Pang had managed to corral about 23 of us, but the way he kept droning on ensured we would have someplace more important to be next time. Less then five minutes into the lecture I conked out.
I don't remember the next half hour, though later my friend Alex would give me his rendition. Since he saved my life, I've got no reason to doubt it. The way he tells it while I slept my skin turned gray and smooth, and my hair fell out. My jaws extended into the beak I've got now, and my nose disappeared as a blowhole formed on the back of my head. Oblivious, I slept on.
Apparently no one else noticed my changes, aside from Alex, until my dorsal fin and tail started straining against my shirt and pants. Unable to take the pressure, my clothes tore apart with a very loud rip followed by my tail knocking over the neighboring desk. Every eye turned on my sleeping form, and for ten seconds dead silence reigned. Then some fool opened his big mouth, "Shit! He's got that plague! We're all going to die!"
People ran so fast that they sucked desks along in their wake. Even the prof bolted, which is kind of ironic considering he wanted to prevent panic. Screams rippled down the hall causing other classes to break and run, someone tripping the fire alarm in the process. Startled by the siren I sat bolt upright, banging my new dorsal fin on the chair-back in the process. Pain cleared the last cobwebs from my head, and I immediately noticed two things.
Alex is a big guy from Puerto Rico. We are good friends, but he's never told me why he didn't run that night. Not that I'm complaining, since without his help I would have died there on the floor.
I was clueless, no idea at all that I had mutated into some monstrous thing. So when I tried to ask Alex what was going on and no sound came out, that's when I panicked. At that instant I suddenly became aware of my body's acute wrongness, and I mouthed a soundless scream. When I was little I had frequent nightmares about not being able to talk, usually when I had to warn someone of danger. All that mindless childhood terror returned, amplified tenfold by all the new sensory feedback and alien instincts. My mind collapsed from images and feelings that the human mind did not have the capability to understand. I started hyperventilating, squeaking and whistling with each breath. Seeing me lose it prompted Alex to action. He grabbed my head and forced me to look at him, shouting "Get a grip Mike, take control!"
He kept talking while staring into my eyes, giving me something focus on. With him as an anchor I slowly pulled myself back from the brink, pushing the fears and needs to small part of my mind. Regaining control of my frantic breathing I rested my chin on his shoulder and waited for the tremors to stop. The whole time he never once recoiled in fear or tried to save himself from catching the virus.
I tried to talk again, but had to settle with writing 'Thanks' in big letters on my notebook.
"No prob man," he said, slapping me on the shoulder. "My brother caught this thing during break in Florida. We got him so drunk he couldn't stand, even with four legs."
We spent the next couple of minutes on the basics. Alex had the advantage of seeing all this happen before, and kept up a steady stream of advice. Standing took some work as I had to balance my tail, but I got the hang of walking quickly. Talking was out, so I used the notepad. Thank God I still had hands, even if the fingers were webbed. Since I was already mostly naked, I decided a little exploration was in order. Fortunately my equipment had moved into a small slit under my tail, sparing me from too much embarrassment.
They say a person has more nerve endings under their fingertips than the rest of their skin, but that didn't hold true for me now. I could feel everything, from the air moving across my melon to a door opening on the other side of the building. Which led to my next crisis. I suddenly needed to get wet. You know when you hold your breath a long time the need to breathe builds and builds until you can't take it any more? That's about as best I can describe it.
I thought IM West had the closest pool, but I would have to walk a block through the busiest part of campus in the snow to get there. I really had no desire to be seen either, one stampede per day is my limit. Lucky for me Alex knew a better way.
"We can use the large animal rehab pool in the vet school's new wing." He explained. "The basement hallway runs all the way there so nobody will see us. My girlfriend Molly works in the lab next door. She'll let us in, and don't worry about her freaking out. She loves dolphins."
As we ran down the cement hallway the urge got stronger and stronger. The need wracked my body like an addict in withdrawal. Leaving me at the pool door, Alex left to find Molly. She hadn't answered her cell phone, and she wasn't in her lab. Every second was torture for me. I couldn't smell the water, but I could taste it, even on this side of the massive doors. Time ticked by far too slowly as I waited for Alex to return, and eons later he came running down the corridor with Molly in tow. Evidently my transformation had sparked a campus-wide riot, and Molly had barricaded herself in her dorm room. Thankfully she lived close by, for during the wait the tremors had returned.
I jumped in the water so fast I almost dragged Molly in with me. The water felt great, but the chlorine had a bitter aftertaste. I didn't even notice as I changed for the second time that day. My legs withered and shrank, while my hands smoothed into fins.
It took two laps to burn off my transformation-induced euphoria and wrest control from my dolphin side. Had this been in the ocean there's a good chance that I would have swam off and never come back. Strong instincts still vied for dominance with my humanity, but the pool's small size gave my rational mind the edge. Neither Dolphin nor I wanted to be trapped in the small space. When I got back control I swam over to the gutter where Molly and Alex were watching and whistled.
"Aw, he's so cute!" Molly said, scratching my chin. It felt really good, but Alex put the kibosh on it with more words of wisdom.
"You should be able to change back to your other shape. My brother can shift to a form halfway between human and deer, calls it his fur form. He says he holds the image in his head, and then wills himself into it."
Though it defied every biological law known to man I readily believed him. Right now my body exiled me from society, but with hands I could still be an engineer, maybe even have a future aside from being a Flipper stand-in. I pictured myself as my old self, perhaps a bit idealized but hey why not, and enthusiastically tried to force myself into that shape. A good deal of splashing later saw Molly and Alex get drenched, but no hands for me.
Molly took it all in stride. It seems she harbored a secret dream to swim with dolphins and kept petting me when I swam by. I was so frustrated at that point that I wondered if they would laugh so much if they had changed into dolphins. Molly chose that moment to rub me again, and I felt an electric jolt pass between us. She scrunched up and fell in the pool, and I got a front row seat to another transformation, thankfully not involving me.
She made a warbling yodel as the change finished, leaving her a sleeker, smaller version of myself. "What did you do?" she asked, thrashing about to free herself from the tattered remains of her clothes.
"Hey, I understood that!" I sent, stunned.
"Of course, but I think our language is too high-frequency for Alex to hear."
Alex sat dumbfounded on the gutter, looking on as his girlfriend swam around the small pool.
"As much fun as this is, you better change me back. I don't want to be stuck this way."
"Thanks for reminding me."
Trying the mental image trick, I touched Molly with my snout and imagined her changing into a human. Again the spark passed into her, and in moments a naked girl floated in the pool. She quickly hid herself behind my bulk.
"Alex, my suit's in my locker. Combo is 53-23-10!"
He sprinted into the locker room and returned with a red and black bodysuit. Did I mention Alex is the consummate gentleman? The whole time Molly flopped on deck with that suit he stared straight at the wall. Never snuck so much as a glance.
While Alex cooed over his girlfriend, I went back to morph practice. Molly's changes gave me lots to think about, and after a few more abortive attempts I managed to change back to my morphic self. This prompted much cheering, which in retrospect was a bad idea since we attracted five soldiers in full bio-warfare gear. Had I not been mute I would have been speechless at the sight, but it was going to get worse.
Our school president must have known about them, hence her pronouncement on mandatory classes. After the outbreak in Australia the government had secretly set up a special task force to study the virus and its effects using MSU's state of the art biological and veterinary facilities. A clever move, since they could keep it secret by hiding it in plain sight. As soon as I became patient zero, the soldiers had moved in and secured the two main buildings, which is how they found us.
The soldiers separated me from Alex and Molly, handcuffing them at rifle point and marching them away. They took me into the new wing and strapped me onto a medical gurney. Then a guy in one of the blue hazard suits straight out of Outbreak stuck a needle in me and knocked me out.
I awoke to a nightmare. Several doctors in the blue plastic suits stood around me, checking instruments or prepping devices. A rat's nest of wires covered every part of my body, except for the heavy-duty straps securing me to a large examination table. A woman walked into my field of vision; her nametag read 'Dr. Subodi'.
She tapped my muzzle. "Do you understand me?"
I managed a nod.
"The girl you were with, she says you changed her into a dolphin and then back again. Is that true?"
Despite my growing apprehension, I nodded.
"At last!" she rejoiced. "I've waited months for a polymorph!"
Any misconceptions I had about the doctor ended in the days of torture that followed. Every test of her 'theories' about the Martian Flu and its spread involved probing, poking and violating my body. After an excruciating physical and mental exam, she demanded that I morph into different shapes, and when I refused she calmly applied electric shocks, all the while telling me it was for the good of humanity. She drove me past exhaustion, till I reverted all the way back to a full dolphin shape, and even then she let me suffocate under my own bulk until she was sure I couldn't change anymore, then callously dumped me back in the pool to await the next day's tests.
Nor was I her only plaything. Over the next few weeks her team captured dozens of people as the virus spread through Michigan, and while society crumbled in the Collapse outside, Subodi, inside MSU and protected by soldiers, performed increasingly fiendish experiments without any concern for us former humans. Rabbits were caged next to predators to see how long it took for them to lose their sanity. Wolves and big cats were starved, then released into a room with only prey species to see if they retained control. Those of us who had some degree of control over our forms were pushed to our limits so the scientists could gauge how fast and frequently we could change.
Those who had switched gender or age got off easier. The soldiers often confused us with animals, but did not have that problem with the gender switches. Many protested Subodi's treatment of them, and soon the gender- and chronomorphs were moved to a separate hospital wing outside her control. Subodi harangued the soldiers endlessly over it, often telling their Sergeant that if he disapproved of her methods he could take it up with his superiors.
As tension grew between Subodi and her guards, she put more effort into security. She knew full well our hate and the soldiers' thinly veiled disapproval. However in her arrogance she underestimated us. So intent on our physical appearance and behavior, she began to believe we truly were animals and did not see how her torture forged the survivors into very dangerous, very determined, prisoners. We organized and planned, using scents and sounds beyond human sensory capabilities, and we waited for an opening.
It came in the form of a popular centaur, Dr. Bob Stein. Although he probably didn't know it, he cracked the near impervious security. His papers on the Martian Flu and SCABS, published during his time at the Center for Disease Control, undermined Dr. Subodi's support in the government. As society recovered from the hysteria of the Collapse, Subodi's backers started questioning her lack of progress and extreme methods, constantly comparing them to Dr. Stein's success. She took the comments personally, becoming paranoid that 'they' were jealous of her work and would try to steal it, and banished the soldiers from her labs, replacing them with her own loyal researchers. More and more often phone calls from senators or other government officials interrupted her examinations and experiments. She began to destroy records, and we knew it was only a matter of time before she eliminated us as well, so we watched intently for our opening.
Well into the day's session with me, she got another urgent phone call from the governor. Grumbling loudly she took it on her cell phone and unconsciously needing her privacy, she stepped back from the control console and turned her back. A grave error, since without someone to activate the shock harness only a lowly technician stood in my way. I had deliberately not resisted this guy ever since he started security duty, hoping he'd get lazy. Bored by the doctor's phone call, his attention wandered, and that's all I needed. Shifting completely to human form I easily freed my hands from the now oversized restraints and grabbed him. Before he got one word out I changed him fully into a doe. Rolling out of the rest of the restraints I tackled Dr. Subodi. Fur puffed and in moments I held up the former doctor, now a Flemish rabbit, in triumph. For my next trick I changed myself into her image, then donning the blue plastic suit, I brazenly walked out of the lab and down the hall to the pens. The guards I passed never gave me a second look.
When I entered the pens the two guards looked up from their poker game. "Back so soon Doc? I thought finboy lasted longer than that," the first one said.
The second one looked more concerned. "You're sweating, is there something wrong with your suit?"
"Yes. Hold this for a second." I dropped the rabbit in his hands.
Drawing on my last reserves of strength I bunnied them too. Spots danced in my eyes and I leaned against the table, refusing to pass out. When the spell passed I fished the keys from the guard's pocket and walked into the animal pens, using the walls for support. Stumbling to the nearest pen I passed the keys to Jessie, who took them in her coon paws and swiftly unlocked all the cages.
While Jessie led the meeker species away from the predators, the wolves spent the time chasing the former doctor around. Our plan depended on quickly taking Subodi's remaining staff hostage, and it fell to the larger predators to make it happen. Several cats crept down the hallways, backed up by some wolves, and even a bear. Surprised and mostly unarmed, the researchers and technicians were easy prey. None had really expected us to escape en masse. We locked them in one of the stalls, then sent Jeff, our spokesman since his only alteration was crow's feet, to negotiate with the soldiers outside.
To my astonishment, he quickly returned with the sergeant. Nervously, the sergeant stepped forward and produced a white envelope. "I finally got a reply from my superiors. This is a warrant for the arrest of Dr. Xio Subodi and her assistants for criminal acts against U.S. citizens. Um, where is she?"
Everyone pointed to the rabbits huddled in fear in the corner. The Sergeant looked somewhat confused at that, but smiled when the truth dawned on him.
"What about us?" someone cried out from the back of our mob. "We're not staying here."
"My orders are to release you. If you need a place to go, for real medical attention and the like, I have a few contacts. Otherwise you're free to leave, or wait here for the CDC. They are taking responsibility for the care of the insane and any one else who wants it."
None of us did.
"You all walked out? What happened to the doctor?" Lisa interrupted.
"We made statements to the cops, but yeah, those still sane just left. A few took our less fortunate friends with them, but too many were basket cases and got shipped to the SCAB colonies. Dr. Subodi still had friends in high places, all she got was a few years in prison and a fine. I hear she'll be out in another year or two, but I know she'll never sleep soundly again."
That concluded the interview. She thanked me and left to seek another story, not noticing the foxtail I had slowly grown on her while we talked. I'm only trying to help of course; first hand experience does wonders for writers.