by Equestrian Horse Wrangler
©2002 Equestrian Horse Wrangler -- all rights reserved
Of all the days for his punishment to take place on, it had to be a horribly muggy one. Looked like the UV rays would be high as well, and a good chance pollen would be high to boot. In other words, a beautiful Houston morning.
Thomas nervously wiped his face as his eyes scanned the newspaper. Sure enough, on the front page of the Metropolitan section was a short story concerning today's upcoming event. He read the article with disgust as it predicted what was to occur, as well as a few other details of note. One of which was that representatives from a local animal rights group would be on hand at one point, mostly to taunt him but otherwise just to push their agenda into the spotlight, and a few people from Amnesty International would also be present to protest his "treatment". Not that it made any difference, though. He had chosen this punishment, because quite frankly he didn't have much of a choice.
Well, actually he did have a choice. He could have chosen to spend a year in prison and cough up a $5000 fine, but neither one of those was very appealing. Luckily for him (and he used the expression sparingly) the judge sitting on his trial was the Honorable Quincy Coe, a man who had earned nationwide attention for his brand of creative "embarrassment" punishments.
It was then that Thomas turned over to the corner of his apartment and saw the sandwich board sign lying against the wall. He still hadn't written the message yet, choosing to blow off the responsibility as long as he could. But as he checked his watch, he saw that he had only an hour before he had to catch the monorail over to the courthouse. With a deep sigh, Thomas brought the sign over to the dimly lit table and began to write his court-ordered message on the first side of the sandwich board.
* * *
Endless thoughts ran through Thomas' mind as he rode the monorail. It was close to 7:00 am now; he had to be at the courthouse by 7:30 so that they could get him ready, and then he would be led out to in front of the building at 8:00 to stand outside while countless pedestrians would pass by; no doubt all of them snickering in their minds as they saw him. He expected to get quite a few snide remarks, too.
He sighed again, realizing finally that as much as he hated the system for placing this burden on him, he had no one to blame but himself. He was the one who had been walking around downtown aimlessly that afternoon, angry at the world after losing his company's biggest stock purchaser and missing an opportunity for a raise. He was the one who wanted to take his frustration out on the first thing that got in his way. And he was the one who, after stepping in a large pile of feces lying on the sidewalk, became so enraged that he pushed the horse who had just relieved itself out of his way. And right into an approaching bus.
The whole street had become silent as the animal was sent hurling through the air after impact, landing on its side with a loud, stomach-churning crunch. Eyes widened in disbelief, the mounted police officer to whom the horse belonged, who had stepped off for a moment to talk to a child, stared.
And that was pretty much all Thomas could remember distinctly before being arrested and hauled off to the downtown holding tank.
Thomas let out little exhalations as the monorail neared the station, slowly picking up the sandwich board and cradling it against his chest. Another passenger on the train, who seemed to have been staring intently at the sign, all of a sudden slid along the seat closer to him.
"Hey!" he exclaimed. "You're the guy who's going to be standing in front of the courthouse today, aren't you."
Thomas didn't reply verbally, instead giving just a solemn nod.
The passenger's eyes lit up. "Wow! And they're really going to do it to you, too? I mean, I've heard about it, but never actually saw it. Well, I've seen a few of the people standing in front of the courthouse before, but not since they've added this new thing! I'm going to come by today and see it for myself."
"Look man," said Thomas. "This is going to be hard enough today, okay. I don't need any fans."
The other man just grinned. "Okay, buddy. Whatever you say."
The train came to a stop at the station, and Thomas meekly stepped out onto the platform, hoping no one else would recognize him.
* * *
"Good morning, Mr. Meadows, I'm Sgt. Oliver Camp and I'll be taking you through this step by step."
Thomas faked a grin and followed the officer through the courthouse lobby. The air conditioning felt good; but it was obvious the feeling would be short-lived. He would soon be standing out in the atrocious Southeast Texas heat, with all the humidity from the Gulf coast saturating the air so much that standing in an oven would seem cool by comparison.
And the worst thing of all would be the condition in which he would have to be outside. He heard stories about people who cracked within minutes, begging not to be taken outside in their new form. But in the end everybody had to do the time.
Thomas had already pleaded with the judge during sentencing that he would never do anything so stupid again. He half believed it himself, but the judge was not moved.
As Thomas entered into the room which housed the device, the first thing that caught his attention was how plain everything looked. He expected some hideous looking machine surrounded by other nasty looking contraptions, but instead the room itself seemed almost unimportant. The paint was old and cracked, the tiles on the floor were faded and one of the lights was burnt out. This room bust have been used for storage or something else before housing the machine.
The machine itself even seemed simple; a large stainless steel chamber with a round, bank vault-like door and a small control panel attached. Some clear plastic barrels full of some kind of substance were stationed along the back wall of the chamber. Thomas looked long and hard at it before asking, "Listen, I know nothing has ever gone wrong with the procedure before, but just how accurate is this thing?"
"Don't worry Mr. Meadows, the people in charge have this thing down to an exact science," said Camp. "It's the same technology we use for repairing diseased organs or other abnormalities in the body. And since the worldwide death rate due to sickness is now practically nonexistent -- well, I rest my case."
It was a curious thing, the machine. Every major city in industrialized nations worldwide had at least one of the smaller forms of the device, but there were only twelve of the large chambers in existence. The city of Houston had been able to acquire one before the U.S. Government ordered Enercorp, the company that made them, to halt production while the government decided how to best deal with the new technology. Kind of like when the government froze the development of television in the late 1940s and early 50s so that they could make sure that all the technology was being created on the same "wavelength" as each other.
Likewise, the government was now trying to create a standardized set of operating procedures for the machines once Enercorp's exclusive marketing privileges expired and other companies began manufacturing similar machines. After all, it wouldn't do to have one machine create a problem that another couldn't fix.
Since the twelve existing machines were all produced by the same company and were identical to each other, it was okay to use them as long as it was for lawful purposes. Bureaucracy being what it is, an independent official observer from the State Department must be on hand every time it is operated to make sure the device is not being abused, and that there are no permanent alterations to the subject.
Camp looked at his watch, and saw that it was time to begin the sentence.
"Mr. Meadows," said Sgt. Camp. "You have been found guilty of one count of malicious animal cruelty. You have been judged by the Honorable Quincy Coe, a judge in good standing in the State of Texas. Your sentence of one year in prison and a $5000 fine was deferred to this alternate form of punishment that the city of Houston will now administer. Do you understand your sentence as it has been read to you?"
Thomas hung his head slightly. "Yes sir, I do."
Camp took Thomas' sandwich board from him. "I'll hold onto this until the scientists are through."
A man wearing a white lab coat came forward. "Thomas Meadows, I am Dr. Sid Morphew. I will be in charge of the procedure. I assure you that I am an expert in this field and no physical harm shall come to you. The barrels inside the chamber contain a very basic protein/carbohydrate blend needed to make up the extra mass you'll need for your new form. This is over course temporary, and you will be returned to your normal body upon completion of your sentence. Will you now enter into the chamber?"
Thomas took a nervous step inside the chamber, and held his breath as the door shut behind him, a loud clicking noise signaling the mechanism locking.
Sgt. Camp's voice came out from a speaker mounted on the wall. "In accordance with City Ordinance 892, the Metamorphic Act of 2009, you are hereby now to undergo your punishment as dictated by the court."
After a few moments, lights inside the chamber began to flash in strobe-like effect, and Thomas began to feel woozy. All off a sudden a large flash brighter than the sun blinded him, and when opened his eyes he could no longer feel his body. He could sort of make out that he was still in the chamber, but at the same time he didn't feel like his was physically there. A strange, bloating sensation came over him as his body seemed to shift about in the air. He could not really feel anything; his body just seemed to sense that it was growing larger and shifting about in whatever metaphysical space he now occupied.
And just as soon as the changes stopped, the lights stopped flashing and he could feel himself standing on the floor again. On four feet.
* * *
Some officers cleared the walkway in front of the courthouse as Sgt. Camp stepped outside. He turned back around as two of his men held the door open, and he placed both of his hands on his sides impatiently.
"Come on, Mr. Meadows," he said softly but forcefully.
Camp became a bit more stern. "The sooner you begin this, the sooner it's all over. And then you can get back to your life."
After a few seconds of contemplation, Thomas finally swallowed his pride and stepped outside.
There was a hush from the small crowd that had gathered as a chestnut Appendix horse begrudgingly ambled out of the building and onto the sidewalk. The stallion hung his head low as Sgt. Camp picked the sandwich board up and straddled it over the animal's back. The straps had been custom designed to accommodate a horse. Camp then stepped back and folded his arms across his chest.
"Just take your time walking back and forth down the block," Camp said. "We'll monitor from the closed circuit TV screens inside, and occasionally come out to check on you. You can stop to rest every now and then, but not for more than five minutes. Don't tire yourself out; you have to hold out for the next five hours."
Thomas stared through Camp as he talked.
Camp took a step closer to Thomas, and whispered, "Don't look so down, Mr. Meadows. Leonardo Da Vinci once said that next to mankind, the horse was God's most beautiful creature."
Thomas just gave a short nod of acknowledgement as he watched Camp and his officers go back inside. He took a deep breath, and then began to walk along the sidewalk.
The shame of it all was unbearable; the eyes of everyone on the sidewalk and in cars passing down the road all transfixed on him as he walked along his path. He could feel their stares burning into his flesh, exposing his soul for everyone to see. He wanted to cry, but pride would not permit it. It was the only thing he had left in him at the moment.
He could feel the sign rubbing both of his flanks as he walked along, and twisted his head around to look at the awful court appointed message he had written on both sides.
-- THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS TO PEOPLE WHO "HORSE AROUND" WITH CITY ANIMALS --
Yes, the pun was awful, Thomas thought to himself. Another of Judge Coe's little contributions to his sentence. He began to hate the man more and more with each step he took, as well as Sgt. Camp for making him come out in public in this terrible form.
"A horse," Thomas thought to himself. "A stupid horse!"
But it was the people who pointed at him that infuriated Thomas the most. He wanted to lash out at them, but he was not permitted to by his sentence. He was supposed to walk, that's it.
Eventually, a woman came walking down the sidewalk holding the hand of a little girl who couldn't have been more than seven. They both looked at him as they passed, and once they got further down the walkway the little girl turned to her mother.
"Mommy," the girl said. "Why is that horse walking around like that?"
"That's not really a horse," the mother said. "That's a bad man who's being punished for what he did to a real horse."
A normal human wouldn't have been able to pick up what they said, but thanks to Thomas' horse ears he picked up every word. That was another punishment altogether; he heard everything people said about him.
* * *
It was around 11:00 when some animal rights activists arrived. It hadn't been too bad up until then; or at least not as bad as it could have been. Some people thought it was quite fun to pull on Thomas' tail or purposely put things in front of him. One little kid even threw a rock at him, and Thomas wasn't even sure if the kid knew what was going on or if he was just being mean to what he thought was a normal horse. It wasn't all bad though. One homeless man even offered Thomas a bite of his apple, for which Thomas thankfully accepted.
But the activists were not as kind. They really made a spectacle of him; following directly behind Thomas with their own signs, making him their "parade leader" as they marched against animal cruelty. No one actually touched Thomas physically, lest they be made to look like hypocrites, but he still received his fair share of taunts along the lines of "How does it feel to be the victim of misfortune?" or other such things. Thomas just ignored them, it was really all that he could do.
What really angered Thomas the most was how the protest seemed so unimportant to him. People used to go out and stage major marches to raise awareness of important issues and fight against various forms of social injustice. Now they waste their time on frivolous little single interest causes.
The local CBS and NBC affiliates showed up to get some footage and interview passersby on what they thought of the punishment. And of course the protesters got their turn in front of the mike.
Thomas just wished he could charge the camera crews and trample the reporter, but once again discretion got the better of him. He just tuned everything else out as he continued along his way.
The heat was beginning to get to Thomas, and he mentally scolded himself for not drinking more water that morning. He forgot just how bad it gets in Houston around noon in the summertime; his job keeps him indoors for most of the day, and an air conditioned office building can really spoil someone. However, just as he was beginning to get dizzy from the heat, a local merchant put out a bucket full of ice water on the sidewalk in front of him. Thomas gave the man a long nod in thanks, wishing desperately that he could thank the man in words. Unfortunately, his voice box wasn't designed for doing much besides whinnying.
The gesture, however, seemed to satisfy the man, who gave Thomas a smile as he walked back into his restaurant. Thomas leaned over and dunked his nose snout in the water, taking a few seconds to figure out how to drink with his new mouth.
He turned around to see that the protesters had gotten tired themselves, and sat down in some lawn chairs that they brought along with them. Thomas would have laughed if he could, as he trotted merrily past them, putting his stamina in their faces.
* * *
Camp came out to tell Thomas it was almost quarter to one, so he could start winding down his pacing and just stand in place for the remaining 15 minutes. Thomas nodded his head and chose a spot in the shade to park himself. A nice gentle breeze picked up and began to make his tail sway back and forth. Thomas smiled as he thought about the day, realizing it would soon be behind him. It hadn't been all bad; along with the two nice people who gave him an apple and some water, some children came by and patted him on the nose. He realized that he should have been repulsed by such an action, but his horse-half seemed to enjoy it.
What's more, a mounted police officer had rode along the street that day riding an Andalusian mare. The officer stopped briefly to talk with someone, and the mare in turn took seemed to take an interest in him. She playfully reached out and nibbled on his ear as he walked by, and swished her tail around a few times. Thomas still felt a little silly about the incident, but deep down it made his day to know someone found him attractive in this body.
But he would soon be saying goodbye to it. In a matter of minutes he would be returning to the infernal device that made him a horse and going back to his normal life.
A loud gunshot from down the street snapped Thomas' mind back to the present, as he saw a man in a ski mask come running out of a shop down the street with a gun in his hands. As the man began to make his way down the sidewalk in the direction of Thomas, several people leapt out of his way, fearing for their lives as he brandished his gun as a warning to anyone who would stop him.
Thomas remained absolutely still as the gunman got closer and closer. Thomas noticed that the robber seemed to be ignoring him. "He must think I'm just a normal horse," Thomas thought. As the man was almost upon him, Thomas absentmindedly stuck one of his back legs out; the man could not stop in time as he tripped over Thomas' hoof and tumbled to the ground, the gun sliding several feet away across the concrete.
The man shook his head in pain and confusion, and then got to his feet. His eyes were shooting daggers at Thomas as he yelled, "You stupid horse! I'm going to kill you for that!"
He turned and tried to make his way to his gun, but Thomas charged at him, planting his head into the man's back and then sending him face first into the wall. The crowd of stunned onlookers began to cheer as Thomas walked over to inspect the unconscious man, who was now laying in a jumble on the ground.
Eventually Camp came outside with some fellow officers and found Thomas standing guard over the man, one hoof planted firmly on his back in an almost triumphant manner. Camp just shook his head as he saw the crowd gathered around, everyone telling Thomas what a good job he had done.
* * *
Of course it was all over the evening news that night. Thomas had even stayed in his horse form a little extra while for some people to snap his picture. One lucky photographer even got an angle where Thomas' sandwich board was plainly visible, turning the pun from the sign into an ironic statement as Thomas stood over the dazed criminal as he was being handcuffed.
Once home, Thomas found a whole slew of messages on his answering machine congratulating him, as well as one from Sgt. Camp himself saying that any time Thomas felt like becoming an official mount for the City of Houston, it was okay by him.
He had just finished listening to the last message as the phone rang. Picking it up, he was surprised to hear Judge Coe's voice. "Thank you for what you did today, Mr. Meadows."
"It really wasn't anything," answered Thomas. "In fact, it's kind of ironic. I got punished for shoving a horse into a bus, and now I'm being rewarded for shoving a man into a wall."
Judge Coe laughed on the other line. "Yes, well, despite that, I hope you've learned a lesson from your experience."
"Yes sir, I did. Believe me, I won't be doing anything else mean to animals. I've learned firsthand just how mean some people can be."
"That they can. Sorry about some of the things that happened to you today. But sometimes I think that being embarrassed like that is the only way to teach people a lesson. I helped create the Metamorphic Act for that very reason when it concerns animal cruelty."
Thomas sighed. "Well, I hope the next person learns their lesson as well."
"I believe they will. I thing the machine itself does a fine job rehabilitating people. It's really one of the only things we can do with the technology right now, given the government freeze. Some people might find it silly or outrageous, but I think it works just fine. But then I am a crazy old eccentric coot, or so my opponent for federal judge calls me, so what do I know?"
Judge Coe did so as well. "Goodbye, Mr. Meadows, and thanks again for stopping that man. You really were a hero today."
Thomas hung up the phone. A hero, he snickered to himself, as picked up the newspaper. He spotted a story about a woman who was arrested for abusing some neighbor's cats, and he smiled as he saw that she would be standing trial in Judge Coe's court. Deep down, he hoped she didn't feel like coughing up the money for the fine either.