|What do you do when you discover that magic -- real magic, spells and curses and mythic creatures, all that good
stuff you never expect to see outside of story books and bad fantasy
movies -- really works? Well, if you're a triplet of Princeton
students named Justin (Computer Science), Lauren (Classical Studies)
and Ted (Engineering), you trade up from your boring old ordinary
human body to something suitably awe-inspiring and mythic. Such
as, just for the sake of argument, a Red Dragon, a Phoenix, or
an Emerald Dragon.
And after so doing, you instantly recognize that you've got the ultimate cash cow to buy out all other cash cows, and you behave accordingly (see Bridge on the Paulins Kill for further details).
One of the things that means, if you do happen to be Justin, Lauren, and Ted, is that you embark upon a shopping tour of the multiverse. You give yourself a 'five finger discount' on whatever catches your attention while you're away from home. And you never forget the great secret of existence, which has been indelibly carved into your brains in the course of your travels: The power to create a dimensional portal for a quick getaway means never having to say you're sorry...
by Mike Brotzman
©2001 Mike Brotzman -- all rights reserved
"Here I go!" yelled Justin as he ran headlong through the portal.
Instead of finding solid ground he stepped out into thin air.
"Whoa whoa, Waaaaaaaaaaaah!"
Justin fell into cool, salty water and began to thrash around violently.
"Waah ::blub:: yeep ::gurgle:: help ::sploosh::"
"Put a sock in it Justin," said an obviously irritated Lauren. "Just stand up."
Justin stopped thrashing, put his feet under him and stood up.
"Well, yeah, um, I was just fooling, I knew how deep it was all along."
"Sure, whatever," said Ted.
The group was standing in icy water about 100 feet offshore. The sky was gray and the beach was deserted, a stiff wind was blowing and Justin swore he saw snow flurries. Fortunately for the three explorers, although they looked human on the outside, they were anything but on the inside and could therefore withstand the icy water without turning blue and dying.
"It's cold," complained Justin. "Why aren't we walking to shore?"
"We need to interface with our big magnetic friend," said Ted, referring to Max, a not entirely welcome 'hitchhiker' that had attached himself to them during their sojourn in a previous dimension. Of course their tolerance of this hanger-on had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that Max was an Atomic Dragon who could literally eat plutonium for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and breathe fallout. "I wonder where he is?"
A few seconds later a big scaly head lifted itself out of the water.
"What kept you Max?" asked Lauren.
"Nothing, I arrived as Justin was flailing around in the water. I needed to make sure I was not detected so I some took time to play submarine."
"Ok," replied Ted, "we'll go into town, and you go and have fun. We'll meet you back here in 72 hours, wherever here might be."
"Don't worry, I memorized the local magnetic conditions in reference to the poles, it will be no problem to locate again. You guys just get ashore before you freeze."
With that Max's head submerged and the big Atomic Dragon set off on his mission to steal nuclear warheads for his personal fuel supply, leaving the three misfits to slowly wade to shore. Along the way, Justin was knocked over three times by waves that (oddly enough) never seemed to bother Lauren or Ted. After they were finally free of the surf, Lauren did the honors of using her Phoenix fire to flash dry everyone's clothes before they froze in the bitter 20-degree air.
"Whoa, that was weird," exclaimed Lauren.
"What's wrong?" asked Ted.
"Using my Phoenix fire just then -- it felt like it took something out of me."
"That's what magic does Laur," said Justin. "Remember what we discussed before we started this trip?"
"I know, but this time I could really feel it. It's like something is wrong with this place. In fact, now that I think about it, I'm not sensing any magic energy anywhere here."
"Is that bad?" asked Ted.
"Well normally I am able to detect the very slight amounts of magical energy that permeates the world around us. However, in this reality I can't detect any at all."
"Can we get home?" asked Justin.
"Well as you just saw magic still works."
"So we're like using the magical energy we brought with us, sort of like a battery," said Ted.
"Which again brings up the question, can we get home?" asked Justin again.
"Well it might have felt like a battery draining, but now I feel completely recharged. Like I was able to reach out and pull the energy from somewhere distant."
"Well that sort of makes sense once you think about it," said Justin. "We're not from this reality; our existence is rooted in our home reality and therefore if we happen to be someplace that is lacking in magical energy we can pull it in from back home. But, just like sending electrical power or water over long distances, there might be problems with flow, lag times and adequate pressure."
"Nice analogy Justin," complimented Ted.
"Yeah, it really cleared things up. Of course that might change the more we stay here and the more our mass is slowly replaced by the mass in this reality. Then again, what could happen in 72 hours? Lauren, if you would be so kind as to confirm my theory."
Justin held out some of the magical paint that he had brought along for emergency use.
"Yup, it's got that glowing aura around it, same as always."
"See?" said Justin. "Nothing to worry about."
"So where are we?" asked Ted.
"It looks like the Rockaways," answered Justin.
"Cool," said Lauren. "I've always wanted to visit an alternate New York City. After all, a good Phoenix has to keep up on all the different trends throughout the multiverse..."
Justin and Ted couldn't tell if she was joking or not.
"...and, by the way, where's the nearest A train?" she finished.
"Beech 105th St," said Justin. "I suggest we go as birds. Nobody ever uses that station and I don't feel like getting change for the MetroCard machines."
They shifted into seagull form, and after stopping to pick up some pizza crusts, they winged their way to the deserted platform. Ted wanted to ride the trains in seagull form as the feathers were a welcome relief from the cold, but Justin was most insistent on being human. Standing on the platform they had nothing to do except wait for the next train.
Quentin Long, the world-renowned Changeling, shapeshifter, actor, celebrity, secret agent and media hog sat looking quietly out the window as the subway train bounced along the tracks. Recently he had been trying to remove himself from the spotlight and on this trip he was traveling incognito. Instead of assuming his typical cheetah morph form, or wandering about as the all-powerful Lord Cubist, he took the shape of your average Caucasian human. Instead of taking a limo from the airport he had decided to take the subway. His inexperience with the New York City mass transit system was evident in that he had boarded the train in the wrong direction. In the end it really didn't matter. The get-together for the 10th Anniversary of The Event wasn't going to go anywhere, and he was finding the long ride across the Jamaica Bay estuary wonderfully calming in its stark winter beauty. His train had reached the end of the line and then reversed, leaving Quentin alone in the last car.
"This newspaper says it's Jan 23, 2011," remarked Lauren. "Congratulations -- we've managed to go back in time yet again."
"Would you look at that," said Ted, glancing at the sports section. "The Dodgers left Brooklyn in this reality."
"Really?" asked Justin. "To where? And why?"
"Apparently, after returning from Los Angeles in 2008, they got bought out by a group of wealthy area businessmen who then moved the team to Stamford, Connecticut."
"Wow, you never know what reality hopping will turn up next," replied Justin.
"Ah, here comes the train," observed Ted.
"That looks like an R-32!" exclaimed Justin. "Those should have been retired like 10 years ago. Budd sure made a quality product."
The train rolled in and they boarded the last car. Justin and Ted took up positions looking out the widow on the rear storm door, while Lauren sat down on one of the hard gray bench seats. The car was almost empty except for a lone figure sitting at the other end of the car looking out the window. As both the scenery outside and inside the car was rather bleak her eyes gravitated towards the lone human male. The more she looked the more she began to feel that something wasn't quite right with him. Dipping into her Phoenix power she stared at the man and a few seconds later the painful truth became known.
"Cancer," she whispered under her breath.
She could see it plain as day. The man's body was infested with a parasitic organism that was slowly consuming his body. It had spread everywhere and it was only a matter of time before the symptoms became apparent and the man lapsed into unimaginable suffering. The poor guy didn't even know he was afflicted. He was beyond all medical treatment, at least all normal medical treatment that is.
"Justin, Ted," Lauren called out.
"As you can see we're right under the glide path to JFK. See, here comes another one... in a second Laur, I'm talking to Ted."
"Jerks," she angrily thought to herself. "Even if they did listen to me they would only mock my powers. Well screw them. I'll just go and heal this guy and shove it in their smug scaly muzzles. Stupid Dragons."
Unnoticed by Justin or Ted, Lauren got up from her seat and walked down the subway car. The man was still totally engrossed with whatever was out the window and didn't turn to look at her until she began speaking to him.
"Um, hi. You don't really know me, but I am going to do something to help you. All I am going to ask in return is that you don't freak out."
Before the man (who was indeed Quentin) had a chance to respond, the benevolent Phoenix laid a hand on his shoulder. He was instantly filled with an intense feeling of peace and calm and could only watch with an odd detachment as Lauren reached her other hand toward the center of his chest. With a splash of energy Lauren's fingers entered him as if he was made of water. As more of her hand went in a glowing nimbus spread across Quentin's body until her entire hand was immersed. Quentin could feel the hand form and fist, and then feel the fist open slowly inside of him before quickly snapping shut. This occurred six times in rapid succession, and each time a surge of energy would radiate inward from the tips of his extremities concentrating where Lauren's wrist was out sticking of his chest. It was only then that Lauren removed her hand. Still in the grip of the relaxing peace and calm, Quentin could only watch as Lauren raised her hand up in front of his face and spread apart her fingers to reveal a potato shaped lump of shimmering, iridescent goo, the red/orange coloration changing slightly depending upon the angle at which it was viewed.
Quentin blinked. "Hmm. What's that?"
"You had cancer, but you don't have to worry as I removed it all. You're in perfect health and are free to live out your life as if you had never had it."
"Cancer?" A puzzled expression flowed over Quentin's face. "I don't have cancer, and never did. Who are you, anyway? I thought I..."
Quentin's train of thought was derailed as his mind was assaulted by a multitude of strange, intense sensations.
Lauren just smiled and laughed. The man didn't even know how close he had been to a horrible lingering death. In fact, she didn't really care. Lauren wasn't out for recognition or even a thank you. She knew deep down that she had done something good and that was good enough for her.
"I know you didn't realize you were sick, but it doesn't really matter any more. Cancer or not you're cured now and my work here is done. You need not thank me, just remember my kindness when you see another soul in distress. You helping them during the new life I have given you is all the reward I require."
In addition to the sensations Quentin was overcome by a peculiar sensation of deja vu. Becoming rapidly more concerned he tried to speak, but nothing intelligible came out. "Aaahhh... ack..."
Lauren's smile fled from her face.
"Are you ok?" she asked, praying to whatever deity listens to Phoenixes that she hadn't done something wrong.
"What... did you... do... to me?"
"I... ah... I, well... I cured you of your cancer."
"Exactly what... did you take out?"
"The cancer, it was consuming your body."
Lauren hoped this was all she had done.
"Right... And did you remove a batch of cells gone haywire, or did you remove a batch of organelles from within my cells?" By now Quentin recognized the peculiar internal sensations: It was what his body used to feel like ten years ago, before The Event had worked him over from the inside out.
"I, I just removed the parasitic thing that was spreading throughout your body. I didn't know exactly what it was. You know, cancer is cancer. I removed it."
"Cancer is what happens when a cell runs wild and starts multiplying uncontrollably. Did you remove a batch of cells, or did you remove stuff from inside my cells?"
"A-all I saw was the brown stuff. It was brown and it was growing all throughout your body, feeding off of it as it went. That's cancer."
"Are you sure you'd know the difference between a parasite and a symbiote?"
"I saw brown. Brown isn't a good color. Parasites are bad so I guess that makes it a parasite."
Quentin was getting unhappy. "One more time: Did you remove a batch of individual cells, or did you remove a batch of organelles from inside my cells?"
"I don't know," cried Lauren, who was beginning to panic. "I just removed the brownness!"
Quentin sighed. "Would you please put me back the way I was?"
Lauren suddenly became suspicious. Why would anyone want this icky stuff back inside of them? She hadn't noticed it in any of the other humans she had seen. Maybe it was some sort of nefarious genetic engineering. Maybe it was some sort of performance enhancing organism. Maybe it was an alien being that was slowly taking over the planet. Lauren's eyes narrowed. Through a quirk of fate Lauren had been given the chance the not just save one human, but save a whole planet full.
"Why? Why do you want this, whatever it is, back inside of you?" she demanded pulling her fist away from his reach.
"Because that stuff is a symbiote, and I need it if I want to shapeshift."
"You're telling me that this strange goo allows you to shapeshift? Even if it does why should I give it back to you. For all I know you're some sort of alien or Chinese spy."
Quentin laughed. "You're not from around here, are you?" He shook his head. "At first I thought you were just a Changeling who'd really stayed hidden, but the more I look at you, the more convinced I am that you were never on the List."
Lauren's expression turned into a scowl and she kicked herself for not feeling out the man's mind first. Leave it to the great Phoenix to get baited in by a loony.
"Bah, you're just some crazy nut. I need to stop getting so worked up. Changelings? Shapeshifters? Yeah, whatever, your cancer's cured and I would just settle for you not pushing someone in front of a moving train. You should think about getting some professional help. Now if you would excuse me I have to go stand somewhere else." Lauren turned around and began to walk back down the subway train. "Sheesh, only in New York," she muttered to herself.
"Now, just a damn minute!" Quentin called after her. "You reached inside my body, and extracted my symbiotes from each cell individually, and you have the gall to doubt I'm a shapeshifter?"
Lauren activated mock mode.
"Well you got me, you are a shapeshifter and I'm really a government agent who was sent to steal your 'symbiotes' and give them to the guys waiting in the black helicopter. Watch carefully."
With her free hand Lauren created a benign flash of Phoenix fire.
"See, now your don't remember anything. You got on the train and nothing happened. Now go over to your window and look out at all the pretty snow while I get ride of this biologically hazardous gunk."
Lauren canceled mock mode, patted the man twice on his cheek went to turn.
"Funny, lady. How about you humor me a little bit and look at my hand? Watch closely," said Quentin, holding up his right hand. "And note that at no time does the hand leave the arm."
Lauren's mouth fell open as she watched the man's hand slowly shift to that of a wolf's paw. The fingers retracted and were replaced with stubby claws. Pads grew out on his paws and the whole thing was soon covered in gray fur. Lauren was completely mystified as to how this was possible. She had felt no magic coming from this man. She had felt no magic anywhere in this accursed world. Even as she watched his hand form shift before her there was none of the telltale signs of the energy that gently kneaded the matter into its new form. Aghast, she looked up into the face of this man and received another shock. Where before had stood a handsome human male, no older than 30, was now a grotesquely desiccated shell of a human that looked as if it was about 90 years old. Lauren recoiled in horror.
Quentin, barely able to continue to stand on his shriveled legs, choked out a few coarse words.
"This... is why I need... the symbiote."
Quentin fell to the floor of the subway car like a rag doll. His eyes, the only part of his body still able to move, still stared straight up at Lauren.
"Hey Laur, you should really come and check out the view," said Justin coming up behind her. "Did you know that this route used to be owned by the Long Island Rail Road and was bought by the... Oh my God what did you do to that man!"
"I didn't mean..." she stammered, the glob of goo still in her hand.
"Shit Lauren," said Ted, "if you really need to suck the life force out of a human in order to recharge your own power there is a time and a place for that activity, but a subway train is most definitely not it!"
"She took... something... I need... and I... hadda... show her... why I need it."
"Holy fuck," exclaimed Justin, "he's still alive?"
"Aw man, he smells. What on earth did you do to him Lauren? I never thought I'd have to have this talk with you of all people. I can see Justin doing this sort of thing, but you? Well what's done is done so I guess we'll have to deal with it. Justin, grab his legs, we'll throw him between the cars as we pass over the North Channel Bridge."
Trying to shield himself from the smell, Justin bent down and grasped the horribly shrunken figure around the ankles praying that the legs wouldn't simply pop loose.
"If Lauren... will just... put me back... like I was..."
"He's suffering," said Justin, "break his neck will you Ted."
"Laaaaaurrrrreeeeeennnnn." Quentin hissed, as Ted went to find a grip on his neck.
Lauren looked at the poor dried up man and then down at her hand that contained the stuff that she had assumed was just cancer. This wasn't right at all. She was trying to save this individual and instead she had sent him to his doom. It wasn't supposed to be this way. She was a Phoenix, a great healer, general doer of good and bestower of kindness. She looked once again at the man, his suffering about to come to an end as Ted positioned himself. Then she looked once again at her hand and the precious cargo it contained.
"Stop!" she screamed.
Without thinking she leaped at the man and thrust her hand, goo and all, directly into his chest. She then willed the stuff to go back from whence it came and was pleased to see pulses of energy spreading out from her wrist. As the pulses died out Lauren slowly withdrew her hand and watched in amazement as the hideous creature started to re-inflate, fleshing out into the muscular man that had stood before her not moments before with the noted exception of his right hand which was still in the form of a wolf's paw.
Quentin waved his paw at Lauren. "Hi there! My name's Quentin, you're Lauren, the dude with the neck fetish is Ted, and I think Justin's the one you guys suspect of being a part-time vampire. How are you all doing, and how come I've never seen nor heard of any of you?"
"Whoa!" shouted Ted, pulling back. "What the hell is going on here?"
"I don't really know," said Lauren. "I think this guy is some sort of shapeshifter. The stuff in my hand was a kind of symbiote he needs to help him shape shift. I thought it was cancer and pulled it out of him by mistake."
"Good one Dr. Lauren," sneered Justin.
"A shapeshifter?" said Ted, "But I didn't feel anything. Wait, symbiote!? What the hell?!"
Ted took a step back, pulled out his gun and pointed it at Quentin. Justin soon followed suit.
"I don't know what in this universe you are, but until I get some answers, Quinton, you're not getting up off that floor."
"Kick him Justin."
Justin launched a bone-shattering kick to the fallen man's ribs which he absorbed with a quick grunt and no other obvious reaction.
"Hey, stop it," yelled Lauren. "He hasn't done anything to warrant abuse."
"I guess you're right Laur. Let's just turn him loose and allow him to carry out whatever plans him and his kind have in store for humanity. We don't know what this thing is. It could be an alien. It could be a genetically engineered spy or a weapon sent here by some rogue state. Heck, it could be some sort of master race that has been secretly controlling humanity for the last 6000 years. This punk is going to warrant abuse until I get some answers. Kick him again Justin."
Justin launched another bone-shattering kick, but the wolf-paw moved with blurring speed to push up from beneath Justin's foot, throwing him back on his ass. However, in one fluid movement Justin flipped over, landed back on his feet and pumped three rounds into Quentin's abdomen. Ted responded with four.
"Ahhhhhh!" screamed Lauren. "Don't shoot him, God damnit I'm trying to save him!"
Lauren moved forward intent on healing the 7 bullet wounds, but she had barely taken a step when Quentin lurched up on his own accord, the glint of pure rage in his eyes. He took a step toward Ted. Faster than Quentin would have thought possible Ted raised his gun and put the silencer an inch from his forehead.
"The next one goes in there buddy."
Quentin's paw twitched.
"Go ahead and try it," said Ted, without even looking. "I dare you."
Ironically it was Quentin who calmed down and brought himself under control. He lowered his hand and paw and allowed for the blood rage to drain from his system. Clearing his throat he spoke.
"What the hell is it with you assholes? Here I am, minding my own business on the subway, when Lauren here waltzes in and does some impromptu psychic surgery on me without so much as a by-your-leave. Seeing this, you two schmucks makes jokes about life-draining and never once think of asking her to undo it. And now... now... you clowns have the sheer, unmitigated chutzpah to make like it's me who's the threat to humanity? What's wrong with this picture, people?"
"Hey, those weren't jokes smart ass," said Justin.
"Shut up Justin. Can't you see he's trying to put a little guilt trip on us to make us forget exactly what he really is? He's not going anywhere until we get some answers about what he is and what he's doing."
Ted turned back to Quentin.
"I notice that bullets don't have much effect on your kind."
Ted put away his gun and pulled out something plastic that looked strangely familiar.
"You see this? This isn't a gun. This is a phaser."
Ted pressed some buttons and vaporized a 4-inch diameter hole in the floor.
"Unless you have an intense desire to find out where the phaser people go, I suggest you behave. So, would you care to tell us exactly what you are and what you are doing here?"
Ted casually waved the phaser in the direction of Quentin's legs, but attitude-wise, Quentin was unaffected.
"My kind! What about your kind, huh? I've lived here all my life, which I'll bet is more than you can say. What are you, time travelers? Alternate universe?"
"It's the latter," said Lauren.
"God damnit Lauren shut up!" exploded Ted.
"Oh put a sock in it!" she shouted back. "He's not lying and I detect nothing but good in him. He's not an alien and he's not a weapon. He's just an ordinary person who has been gifted with some extraordinary powers. Trust me. Please."
Ted and Justin looked at each other, holstered their weapons and then collapsed down on the gray seat bench.
Lauren turned to Quentin.
"I'm sorry about how we've treated you. It's just that on our journeys we are prepared to expect the worst and if we're not careful we could all end up dead. That tends to put us a little on edge. Now, why don't you sit down and tell us about yourself."
Quentin laughed. "With that kind of attitude, you might want to ask how much of your trouble is your own damn fault for being so paranoid."
"Well what would you do if you ran into yourself?" demanded Justin.
Quentin shrugged. "Depends on the circumstances. Anyway. My name's Quentin Long, and once upon a time I was a perfectly normal human. Then, 10 years ago, to this very day, something real weird happened to me and every other member of a particular Internet mailing list..."
About 10 station stops later Quentin finished his story.
"Ok," said Ted, "let me get this straight: 10 years ago you and everyone else on a single internet mailing list was transformed into their most-imagined-about forms and it never happened to anyone else and it was never explained -- despite the fact that there is clearly no magic on this planet."
"That about sums it up."
"I knew it, this whole damn reality is nuts. We should get out of here before someone decides to drop a 16-ton weight on our heads."
"Normally I would encourage such a notion, but first I would like to know a little bit about you three," said Quentin.
"Well," began Lauren, "Justin over there is an Emerald Dragon, and Ted is a Red Dragon. Would you be so kind as to show our guest?"
Ted and Justin begrudgingly lifted up their shirts, revealing both emerald green and wine red scales covering their torsos.
"Okay, you're tourists from another dimension and you're not even human!? Double-standard much?"
"Hey, we used to be human," countered Ted.
"But thanks to modern magic we got changed," added Justin.
"That's all very well, but it leaves the question of what's on your agendas?"
"Um," began Ted, "you know, we're just exploring, looking around, meeting new people, seek out new life and new civilizations, um..."
"...and boldly go where no man has gone before. You owe Roddenberry's estate for copyright violation. Try again."
"Um, well you know, collect stuff, get some souvenirs, some mementos..."
"You came here to steal stuff, didn't you?"
"Is it that obvious?" asked Justin.
"Painfully," replied Quentin. "Well, that leaves the only one of you who isn't a complete asshole."
Quentin turned to Lauren.
"Are you a Dragon as well?"
Lauren smiled and got up out of her seat.
"No silly, I'm a Phoenix."
Standing in front of the seated Quentin, Lauren undid her body armour and lifted up her black t-shirt to reveal a chest covered in bright orange and red plush feathers. Two definitely un-avian mounds stood out from her chest in a seemingly uncaring defiance of gravity. The subway car began to fill with the springtime sent of wildflowers, morning dew and light rain. Whatever Quentin had been thinking about was abruptly tossed out the window and his eyes gave their full attention to the mythical sight before him. He began to reflexively sniff the air, drawing the exotic smell into his nostrils.
"Oooo," cooed Lauren, "he likes. At least some males know how to appreciate me."
"It's because we know that under those feathers lies a lump of coal," said Justin.
As a sudden bolt of Phoenix fire set Justin's pant leg on fire, Lauren turned her attention back to Quentin.
"Hey, how about I give you a more personal tour."
Before Quentin could respond she grabbed his head and pulled it into her soft, feathered chest, which had the added bonus of forcing him to inhale a megadose of her erotic Phoenix scent. Suddenly, Lauren felt Quentin moving under her, although a better term would be 'flowing'. His feet sprouted talons right through the sneakers. His little and ring fingers on each hand fused and stretched out with feathers growing from his arms. These slowly morphed into full wings except that he had three fingers projecting from the far joint. Next his mouth opened wide and he grew a beak, and a big one at that. Quentin's head folded itself around until it was looking mostly avian. His ears vanished, traded away for a prominent feathered crest, and his eyes melted into dark red pupils in a glowing orange sea. Aside from being feathered, Quentin's legs were still human as were the general structure of his arms.
"Don't tell me you changed him into a Phoenix," said Justin.
"No she didn't," countered Ted. "Shifty over there has just gone bird happy. I told you he was a freak!"
"I think he's sweet," said Lauren, patting Phoenix-Quentin on the head.
Quentin was still staring at Lauren.
"I want to bear your children," he blurted out.
The conversation stopped there. For about ten seconds Justin, Lauren and Ted just started at the anthro-Phoenix. Justin began to smile as he brought back an embarrassing memory of a somewhat painful prank involving himself, Lauren, and super-concentrated Phoenix scent.
"Hell, I say let him."
Lauren was caught between feeling pleased with herself, ashamed with herself, insulted and flattered all at the same time.
"Um, that's really nice of you, um, Quentin, but I just wanted you to know... wait. You want to bear my children? Are you ok?"
Quentin closed his eyes, bowed his head and massaged the bridge of his beak with the fingers on his right hand/wing.
"That was... unusual."
He shook his head and looked up at Lauren.
"Do you have that kind of effect on everybody, or is it some pheromonal thing I'm sensitive to, or what?"
"Everybody," said Justin and Ted in unison.
"Most of the effect goes away after you get used to it," said Ted. "Lauren is somewhat of a flirt."
"I think there's another term for it," said Justin who soon found himself beating out his other pant leg.
After Quentin changed his form back to human, in case someone decided to enter the still deserted car, he took out his cell phone and called ahead for a fresh set of shoes.
"Where are you guys going," he asked.
"Midtown," Justin said.
"Since we're going to the same place we might as well have a civilized conversation. So... how did it happen for your world?"
"How did what happen?" said Ted.
"Well, you said 'modern magic' changed you, and that's as good a description of The Event as any. Ours hit everyone on a mailing list; what about yours?"
"Well I had thought about the mailing list approach, but there was just too much involved to get it to work, so we used a old abandoned bridge," said Justin. "Until the government stepped in."
"Whose fault was that?" asked Ted.
"You mean... you are the cause of your world's Event?"
"Well it didn't start out as an event. Genius Justin here just forgot to add a freaking on/off switch," remarked Lauren.
"Time out!" yelled Quentin, holding up his hands in a T sign.
"When you said 'modern magic'... you literally meant magic. Casting spells. Sorcery. That sort of thing."
"What did you think we meant?" asked Justin.
"You mean that bullshit works where you come from?"
"Yeah," said Ted, "it's pretty easy once you apply modern engineering and computer science techniques."
"How would you like us to prove it, Mr. Skeptic?" challenged Justin.
Quentin shrugged. "Don't see how you could. Even if it did work back in your home timeline, I kinda doubt you'll get any results here..."
Justin quietly got up from his seat and looked at the route map to determine the time until the next station. Then, after stretching slightly, he began to shift. However, it wasn't like any shift Quentin had ever done. Justin's clothes seemed to melt into him. Boots, socks, shirt, gun, it all slowly turned into green-scaled skin. Soon a naked morphic Dragon stood there taking up most of the subway car. Before Quentin could say anything the huge Dragon-man began to melt away. It got smaller and smaller until it was a small Dragon no bigger than a cat. The mini-Dragon flapped its wings and hovered in front of Quentin's disbelief stricken face.
//Is this proof enough?\\ asked Justin directly into Cubist's mind before he quickly shifted back to normal.
"I'll take that as a yes," said Justin.
"And we can do lots of other things," said Lauren. "Watch this."
Lauren reached out toward Cubist, but it wasn't with her hands. Her mind quickly penetrated Quentin's physique and began to rummage around. Zeroing in on his pleasure centre she began to stimulate it while at the same time filling his vision centre with pictures of a highly 'stimulating' nature. Many of which involved her and him... together. Cubist began to softly moan and pant. Suddenly there was a loud snap as Cubist's belt gave way.
"Oooooooohhhh! That ain't right," said Justin and Ted in unison.
Lauren just broke down laughing. A few seconds later Quentin regained control over his body and quickly went about making himself presentable again. Seeing that this simply could not happen again he lightly grabbed Lauren's arm and pulled her aside.
"Lauren, I thank you for your attention -- it's rather a compliment, in a way. But I really don't think you know what you'd be letting yourself in for if you continue trying to engage my libido. You see, my shapeshifting can be activated by intense emotion... and if I don't have a target form consciously selected, which I wouldn't during orgasm, God only knows what I'll end up as. So please, no more of that, alright?"
"Don't worry, I'll keep myself under control," she said.
For some reason, Quentin didn't feel very relieved. He regained his full equilibrium (again) in a couple of minutes, thinking all the while. Clearly, these three yahoos were dangerous (Lauren included, except in a completely different way than the other two); he decided it would be best for all concerned to get them around the only 'humans' who would have a serious chance of being able to deal with them.
"If you're tourists, you probably want to see interesting local sights... and I'm heading for a very interesting local sight. We Changelings are having a ten-year reunion today. Care to come along and see the freaks?"
"Where is the reunion?" asked Ted.
"Madison Square Garden IV. We rented the whole place out. No scientists or journalists -- just 100% Changelings."
"Will there be free food?' asked Justin.
"All you can eat," replied Quentin.
"We're there," said Justin, Lauren and Ted together.
"Figured as much. Can I get a promise from you guys to keep a lid on your assholiness while you're there, please?"
"We're not assholes," said Ted. "That was a perfectly reasonable reaction to a life form that in most realities would be engaged in a secret plot to enslave humanity."
"Yeah," countered Justin, "you try reality hopping and see if you act any better."
"If I ever do try reality-hopping, I won't be quite as eager to open a can of whupass on the natives as you lot are."
"Try doing it as a Dragon," kidded Lauren.
"What difference does that make? You can obviously shapeshift to a more inconspicuous form. You don't need to run into any trouble you don't damn well want to!"
"I was referring to the mindset, but anyway you seem to be taking this very well. Most people who stumble upon non-human travelers from another reality tend to remain incoherent for weeks."
Quentin smiled. "Sorry, I used up my supply of Incoherent a few days after The Event. Once your body ambushes you with a transformation out of the blue, no other surprise measures up!"
On the outside Quentin might have looked calm and easy going, but he most certainly did not trust these clowns. Justin and Ted reminded him of teenagers who had stolen the keys to their father's sports car; as for Lauren, she was as cluelessly hazardous as a 4-year old with a nuclear hand grenade. It was good that they were playing nice now, but... As the conversation went on, Quentin did some internal remodeling to make himself a better combatant, just in case they decided to revert to assholes again. He boosted his reaction speed, strength, overall sensory acuity, and physical resilience; as a countermeasure for Ted's 'phaser', he created a network of microscopic 'water balloons" beneath his skin, on the theory that the water would divert the bulk of the energy by exploding into steam on contact with any phaser bolt, thus acting as ablative armor; and finally, he created venom sacs in his skull, with ducts feeding into his mouth so he'd have the option of spitting (or injecting with a bite) concentrated neurotoxins.
As other people began to enter the subway car the conversation amongst the four beings died down considerably (for obvious reasons) and Justin and Ted occupied their time staring down through the hole in the floor. Much to Quentin's dismay, Lauren just spent the time staring at him and smiling. Finally the train arrived at 34th St. and the foursome got off. Quentin indicated that he had to first stop off at his hotel to 'change'. As Justin, Lauren and Ted waited outside of his bathroom they soon learned that change meant not only out of his tattered clothes, but also into a new body. What went in as a human came out as a 7'6" cheetah morph, although Quentin still retained all of his combat modifications. Lauren giggled as she was overwhelmed by the cuteness. As they rode back down in the elevator the topic of reality hopping came up again.
"You know," said Justin, "this reality isn't all that bad. I mean it is definitely better than that one where all the cars turned into horses and whatnot."
"Yup," continued Ted, "and much better than that one where that annoying wizard guy turned you first into a girl and then into a poodle."
"And I suppose that wizard had a shop called Spells 'R' Us?"
"Yeah, had is definitely the operative word. Justin blew it to smithereens with the Vulcan gun," laughed Lauren. "You know, all the ammo you wasted is coming out of your cut of the loot."
"How did you about know that?" asked Justin, suddenly getting very quizzical.
Quentin gave himself a mental slap on the forehead. How stupid of him! These were just Changelings who had just suckered him into a big practical joke. True, he had never heard of them or their powers, but even now, ten years on, there were a few lurkers who had never been formally identified.
The size alteration? Quentin could do that himself, reshaping his mass, essentially inflating and deflating like a bicycle inner tube. And it had never been formally established that he, Quentin, was the only shapeshifter on the List, just the only one known. Yes, these three had gone to no small amount of trouble to put together a plausible 'cover story', even in its most incredible parts. The alternate timeline schtick at least had good theoretical support! Still, this latest revelation was just too much. Really... visiting fictional settings?
"Good one -- I must admit, you had me going there for a while," he said out loud.
"Excuse me?" asked Justin.
"That was a real sweet job you did; I fell for it completely, I admit it."
"Fell for what?" asked Lauren.
"You overplayed your hand, that's all. Just don't keep on claiming you've visited any story universes and I think you'll be able to con everybody."
"But we told you from the beginning we were visiting other realities," said Ted, "why are you acting so surprised now?"
"Come on, you know as well as I do that Passing Fad is a complete joke. I'll never understand why anybody bothered to write more stories in that setting. Anyway, just lay off the 'I visited Spells R Us and all I got was this lousy T-shirt' stuff, and you're good to go."
"Passing what?" said Ted as they exited the elevator.
"They weren't selling T-shirts," said Justin.
"Come on, guys. Cars into horses? That's Passing Fad all over. Stupidest, most pointless setting whose stories ever touched the List. And Spells R Us is a close second in the 'stupid and pointless setting' race."
"It certainly wasn't stupid with all those starving humans," said Lauren.
"Yeah, and those Atomic Dragons weren't anything to laugh about," said Ted. "We're lucky the one we encountered came over to our side."
"Only because he needed to steal nuclear warheads from other realities," said Justin.
Quentin didn't bother to contradict them. He'd seen through their line of patter, and if they thought they could save face by brazening it out, they were wrong. However, he had to admire their chutzpah.
"Atomic Dragon? Hmmm... that would be, what, a transformed atomic submarine?"
"Close," said Lauren. "Nuclear missile. There's the Garden, where do we get in?"
"Might as well use the front entrance. Say, can you guys shift to anthropomorphic forms? It'll be easier to get you in if you look like lurkers."
"Don't worry," said Justin, thinking of the 'Jedi mind trick' amulets he and his friends had created to make themselves unnoticeable when they wanted to be. "We've got it covered."
The four walked right up to the main gates and tried to amble right past the gaggle of security at the front entrance. They had taken about five steps when a burly human, who could have easily been mistaken for a bear morph, grabbed Justin by the shoulders and made it plain that he was most definitely not going to get in. Ted and Lauren began to protest, but seven other bouncers quickly surrounded them. The stress levels of the three explorers were rising rapidly.
"I don't understand," whispered Ted so that Lauren, Justin and Quentin could hear, "our amulets should have prevented anyone from noticing us."
"Maybe they aren't working due to the lack of magical energy," said Lauren.
"Yeah, sure, that's the reason," said Quentin rolling his eyes with a slight air of sarcasm. "Let me talk to the guy."
He turned to the bouncer.
"Don't worry about it, Gary. They're lurkers, and they're with me."
"I'm sorry Mr. Long, orders are orders. Only List members are allowed; no friends, no family, no children, no wives. No exceptions. Do these 'lurkers' have an invitation? Are they on the list?"
Quentin sighed. He disliked having to pull rank.
"As Lord Cubist I command you to grant us entrance," he said, pulling himself straight.
"You're not Lord Cubist. Lord Cubist is a human and he wears that costume. Besides, why would I take orders from a fictional character?"
As getting the Lord Cubist outfit out of his backpack would entail too much time, Quentin just looked over at the three.
"Anthro forms, please?"
Of course the lowly bouncer didn't warrant such a level of effort. The three of them just held out their hands and changed them into various mammalian predator paws, right before his eyes. Upon verification of the realness of the changes, Justin, Lauren, and Ted were grudgingly admitted.
The place was packed. About 500 life forms could be seen wandering the court area and the various mezzanine levels. Ever since they bulldozed Grand Central Terminal to build Madison Square Garden V, MSG IV had been a lot easier to rent out. Its questionable profitability had led some to propose tearing it down. However, in the here and now all this debate added up to the Changelings getting the place to themselves for the entire week. Some of the people looked human, others were various animal morphs, there were even some creatures that looked like livestock, a few even penned in a paddock that had been constructed where the Zamboni machines were previously kept. What instantly drew Justin's, Lauren's and Ted's eyes were the Dragons. There were two clearly male Silvers trying very hard to win over a single Silver female. There was another, off eating a cow by himself, that looked somewhat Welsh in origin, and there was an odd looking feathered Dragon that seemed to be busy popping down some sort of medication. Justin almost went for his gun when he saw a Queen Alien taking up a whole level of lower row seats, but Quentin was able to stop him in time.
"Hyper down, guy! You don't recognize Morgan?"
"What the hell is your malfunction?" asked Ted. "We told you, we don't know these people, and we're not from your fucking planet, moron."
"How about you just drop the 'dimensional tourist' routine, okay? We're all Listies here, so no problems, right?"
Ted rolled his eyes and stormed off toward the food table.
Hmmm... they really are into it, thought Quentin to himself. Maybe these three are lost in their characters? Sasha and Morgan certainly got lost in theirs... He turned to Lauren. "Um... Would you mind letting me try a mindlink with you?"
"Mindlink. Telepathy, sort of."
//I think I would be more qualified to run such a procedure,\\ mind-spoke Lauren. //What are you proposing?\\
Quentin blinked and tried to reply with a thought of his own.
//I grow some microscopic tendrils and make a direct neural connection. That okay with you? This is a trick I've done several times during the past 10 years, and I'm pretty competent with it.\\
Lauren felt she owed this poor man some trust, but she also owed him a warning.
//Well, if you really want to, it's your choice if you want to get mind frelled. My friends helped me install a bunch of mental defenses. I think I can configure it correctly to give you access, but I'm not really an expert in using the system. Not to mention I don't know how my inner Phoenix reacts to wanted or unwanted mind probes.\\
"Well, hell. I've got experience, like I said, so I know a little about hostile brains, eh? Don't worry, I'll be careful."
Quentin pulled up two chairs.
"Okay, let's get comfortable... and could you let your friends know what's up? They strike me as a bit too trigger-happy for my taste."
"They're off getting food. They won't be back for a while, trust me."
They both sat down and Quentin touched her face, unwittingly replicating the Vulcan mind-meld gesture, placing his fingertips near major ganglia and nerve clusters. From his fingers then grew millions of microscopic tendrils that insinuated themselves into her body to link up with her neurons. Normally this would result in the linking of two minds; they each would be able to feel the thoughts of the other. Having done this sort of thing many times in the past, however, Quentin could do more than just listen. His plan was to scan her memories to see if there was anything left of the old List member that he presumed was buried under her new Phoenix persona. As soon as the connections hooked up Quentin knew that something was not right. Instead of hearing the soft voices of thoughts in his mind, he heard only the crackle of static.
"Hmmm... I'm not getting anything," he murmured. "What sort of mental defenses you got here, anyway..."
Quentin was cut off in mid sentence as the conscious reality he was a part of melted away in a flash of light. He soon found himself bodiless and staring at an infinite gray plane. He was able to move his point of view, but no matter where he moved or how fast, all he saw was the same infinite gray. He sent out a mental query toward the wall that blocked his path and was pleasantly surprised when the typical black outline of a door appeared on the plane. His point of view moved toward it and finally touched it. As soon as contact was made the portal swung open and let Quentin into another featureless space stretching off into a limitless white horizon. Suddenly the quiet was broken by a whoosh and Quentin found himself in the presence of the semi-transparent figure of an orange and red flaming bird. It was as if its body was made of a cloud of plasma. Flames licked up from its ethereal plumage as if from a bonfire. The entity hovered there, motionless, regarding Quentin's mind with its unerring gaze. Then, quite abruptly, the neutral look of the Phoenix's face turned to one of anger. Before Quentin could even let out a mental scream the void was filled with a roar and blinding flames filled his mind.
Quentin let out a horrifically agonized and extremely loud scream as he pulled his hands from Lauren's face.
All noise in the area shut off and every pair of eyes focused on the pair. Plates of food dropped and other Changelings began to come in from the outer sections of the Garden.
"Um, it's ok everybody, I ugh, just stepped on one of Quentin's tentacles. I didn't realize he had changed forms," said Lauren, thinking quickly.
Quentin just sat there, staring in disbelief at the smoke rising from his hands. Whatever had been in Lauren's mind had flash burned away the neural connections in an effort to protect itself. Quentin blew on his hands and shapeshifted the damage away.
//Tell them,\\ mentally urged Lauren. //Everyone's staring.\\
"Yeah, I'm fine," Quentin called out to the other reunion-goers. "Sorry about the disturbance, took me by surprise is all."
He turned back to Lauren.
"Well, I guess that answers my questions, thanks."
"What do you mean?" said Lauren. "You didn't make contact. Sorry about your hands. What do you think I warned you for?
"Hm. You think your inner Phoenix might react better if I ask politely before going in?"
"I don't know, I haven't had enough experience to know its likes and dislikes."
"Well maybe I'll try it that way. Just give me a second," replied Quentin. "I need to walk around some."
He got up and started to walk around the arena floor.
Holy shit, they're not Changelings, was all he could think of.
If there was any doubt in his mind, what happened next quickly eliminated it.
Meanwhile, Justin and Ted had been amassing a large plate of food over at the snack table. As many of the Changelings required special (that is, large) diets, no expense had been spared. They were nearing the desert section when a tough looking wolf morph approached them and demanded to know who they were.
"Um..." stumbled Justin, "we're with that Quentin guy."
"Yeah," said Ted, "we're... um... lurkers or something."
"Ok you two clowns, unless you give me some real form of identification I am going to be forced to physically remove you."
"Oh, right," said Justin, "the hand thing."
Justin held out his hand and shifted it into a wolf's paw.
"Is that good?"
The wolf-man just stood there, his mouth agape.
"What? Is there some sort of hand shake that goes along with it?"
"You're... you're... you're..."
"We're what," said Ted.
"Good god, you're shapeshifters."
"Hmm, now that you mention it," replied Justin, "I guess we are shapeshifters. I'm real glad we met you. This clears up a lot of issues I was having trouble with. Now step aside, you're blocking the food."
"Hey! Everybody!" the wolf-man yelled, "there are two new shapeshifters. Right here."
For the second time in as many minutes, all conversation in the hall stopped and a crowd began to form around Justin and Ted.
"Who are you two," someone yelled.
"Um, we're lurkers?" Ted responded.
"Then what was your e-mail," came a voice of authority from somewhere in the crowd.
A short, yellow-green lizard man stepped forth with a clipboard and a pen.
"Here, point it out."
"Um," said Justin leafing through the pages, "this one?"
"That one is mine," said the lizard man.
"He's a horse."
"That's a page number."
The lizard turned to the wolf-man.
"Hey Dev, who the heck are these jokers?"
"They are shapeshifters, I swear it. I saw the shorter one turn his hand into a wolf's paw."
The lizard was silent for a second before exploding.
"Quentin, finally! It's about time! That stubborn fool is finally making more Cubists. I just knew he couldn't resist. Yes! I knew he was planning something big for the reunion. Hey Quentin, get your furry self over here! I need to give you a hug!"
"What are you talking about?" said Ted.
"You, my man. I'm talking about you. Cubist has finally decided to share his power with the world! I am a little confused over his choice of outsiders though. Many members of the list have expressed their desire to be able to shapeshift, not that there's anything wrong with you."
"Yeah," came a low rumbling voice from behind Justin and Ted. "After all the nice things I did for that dickhead he goes and gives the power to a couple yahoos he probably picked off the street. I ought to freeze his ass to the wall for this."
Justin lost control. It had been hours since his last meal, he was standing with a plate piled high with food and he was being prevented from reaching a table.
"What the fuck are you talking about?" shouted Justin. "We're not something that idiot Quentin made or whatever you're saying he did. All we are is three explorers from another reality who would very much like to sit down and get some food!"
Justin didn't find it odd that he was now publicly announcing something that was usually his foremost duty to keep secret. Ted buried his face in his hands. In the context of this crowd, Justin's statement went over like someone loudly announcing that they have an STD.
"Yeah that's right," screamed Justin at the top of his voice. "I'm a Dragon, he's a Dragon and the pretty lady over there, well, she's a Phoenix. We've had a long day and we're extremely hungry. If you freaks don't move the fuck out of my way so I can get some food, I swear I'm going to fucking lose it."
Again there was dead silence. The next words came from the maw of the big Silver Dragon.
"Great, just great. I lose out to a couple of loonies he picked out of the asylum."
Next came the sound of a very full plate hitting the cement floor.
"That's it," snarled Justin. "It's go time."
The crowd began to retreat, not because they were scared, but because they were being physically pushed by Justin's rapidly expanding mass. His human clothes and equipment melted away to be replaced by wine red scales; two wings exploded from his back and sent a couple of Centaurs sprawling; his neck extended outward towards the food table and even before his body was finished with his transformation we began gobbling down the food. As soon as the table was empty his head shot up with a triumphant roar. As soon as Ted saw Justin lose it he too shifted form with Lauren not far behind. As Justin scarfed down the food, Ted calmly drew his Dragon-sized pistol and pointed it at the other large creatures they happened to be sharing the hall with. Lauren flew over and hovered protectively overhead, a menacing scowl on her fiery beak. After Justin finally calmed his hunger he glanced around and, noticing Ted's defensive stance, drew his own pistol and went back to back with his friend. By this time many of the Changelings (humans and herbivores especially) were screaming and running away. Many of the predator morphs were still acting calm, but it was probably due to an overwhelming sense of disbelief. The loud-mouthed Silver Dragon that had so annoyed Justin had a look that crossed between awe and horror on his face.
"Dear Lord, they're the real deal!" he blurted out.
"No! This-this-this, isn't... possible!" screamed the baby-faced lizard man.
Of course Justin, Lauren and Ted didn't want to hurt anyone, but their cover had been blown and the only thought on their minds was escape. If they could get the hell out of Dodge, they could regroup and maybe salvage the rest of their vacation without assistance from Max. Luckily, they had trained for situations like this and in this moment of crisis, their training was taking the place of instinct.
//Ok,\\ shot Justin, //Flash transformation, followed by escape plan Beta.\\
//I concur,\\ thought Ted.
//On my mark,\\ said Lauren. //One, two, three..\\
What had taken the group only seconds to decide upon was, in reality, a highly risky maneuver. A flash transformation took all the processes of a typical magical formshift and compressed into the space of a few milliseconds. This trick was highly dangerous and aside from getting their dimensional pointers mixed up and losing some or all of their original mass, Justin and Ted also risked losing their original body patterns, the loss of transformational abilities for an indefinite period of time and also stood a chance of failing to transform all the way or transforming into something that was unfit to carry on the processes of life. Fortunately, hours of intense training had reduced this risk to acceptable levels, but it was a risk nonetheless. However, the Changelings at the reunion knew none of this. All they saw was a flash of light and where Dragons had stood were two ordinary humans with magical sparks slowly drifting down around them and an angry Phoenix hovering overhead. Without even bothering to check to make sure they were all there, Justin and Ted grabbed Lauren's talons and without a moment of hesitation, the great firebird shot toward the steel reinforced roof of Madison Square Garden IV.
Escape plan Beta called for Lauren to use her Phoenix form as sort of an inverse heat shield with a barrier of plasma propagating from a point a few inches from her beak and cupping itself around her. The plasma would burn its way through nearly any man-made obstacle, thus ensuring their freedom. Lauren skyrocketed upwards and willed the flame to its full intensity. The playoff banners flew by in a blur. Freedom was within their grasp! Within an hour they would be antiquing in some civilized place like Greenwich.
The impact reverberated throughout the entire arena and everyone except Quentin noticeably winced. Lauren had failed to account for the lack of ambient magical energy in this reality and her plasma had only gotten to half the recommended operating temperature. While this should have given Lauren something to think about regarding the need to preheat, she probably wasn't thinking about much of anything as she floated limp and featherlike down to the arena floor, Justin and Ted holding on for dear life, their own transformational abilities having been temporarily fried. The firebird hit the floor and there was a moment of silence.
Wanting to defuse the situation Quentin approached the trio, now crumpled up in a little ball, clapping. His voice carried over the entire arena without seeming loud enough to.
"Now, that is one sweet display of shapeshifting!"
With any luck, a prominent display of confidence would defuse the panic-in-the-making; what he did not need was panicked reunion-goers running out into the street screaming bloody murder. If the police came in, the three travelers would most likely defend themselves and that was something Quentin had no doubt they could do.
But before Quentin got anywhere close to the visitors the doors burst open and several squads of MSG security personnel burst in. As the Changelings were still quite controversial, security had been tight and many of the guards were just aching for something to do.
"What is the meaning of this?" bellowed the lizard man. "I thought we made ourselves clear: This meeting is for Changelings only!"
"I'm sorry Mr. Knight, but we heard some loud noises and something that sounded like an explosion. Not to mention some of your group telling us there are a couple of monsters running around in there."
"Monsters? You mean, besides Brotzy and Morgan?" Quentin asked, his face displaying an amused smile, which didn't match his true emotions.
The Silver Dragon was astute enough to realize what was going on and casually stepped in front of Justin, Lauren and Ted, hiding them from view.
"You heard what you heard, but don't worry about it -- it's all under control now," Quentin went on. "We're just going to have to water the punchbowl a little more, if you catch my meaning. Nice response time, though; I'll write to the management, recommending bonuses for all of you. Okay?"
"The alternative is," said a small child, walking forward, "me personally going and having a talk with your superiors for interfering with a private party that I paid good money for."
The security guys looked confused for a second before mumbling something to themselves and begrudgingly retreating back through the entrance doors. From the group of semi-human onlookers came a bout of concerned murmuring. The lizard jumped up on one of the tables and whistled for everyone's attention.
"Alright, everyone! I don't know if our guests were ever subscribed to the List. But after what we've seen them do, I say they're just as much Changelings as we are. What's more, I say they are just as deserving of our help, assistance, and protection as any other Changeling is. Are we all agreed on this, please?"
There was some more mumbling.
"What, you're going to have these three people locked away in jail just because they are different? Have you forgotten your own experiences so quickly?"
There was some more mumbling that finally ended in subdued agreement.
"So, I want all of you to promise not to mention one word of this to any non-Changeling unless our new friends over there say otherwise."
The group reluctantly mumbled their promise.
"Cubist, these people came with you, maybe you can shed some light on the situation at hand. They look sort of injured."
Ted let out a low moan.
"Maybe there's something we can do or get for them?" finished the lizard.
"No need. I'll bet they're about as hard to kill as I am, and if they do need any care, the odds are that Lauren can do a better job with 'em than anyone on this world could hope to."
"I need something to drink," gasped Justin.
"Yes yes, Cody get something for him," the lizard man said to a sort of half-human horse morph, then he turned back to Quentin. "They said something about being travelers from another reality. Is this really true? Where did you meet them? Are they dangerous?"
Those who weren't focused on the two Dragons-turned-humans flailing around the inert form of the giant red-and-orange-plumed bird turned to listen to Quentin's response.
"In order: Yes, I think they are. We met on the New York subway system. And yes, they're dangerous, but more from cluelessness than actual malice."
Cody came back with a glass of water and handed it to Justin.
"No, I meant something alcoholic," he scolded the man.
"Oh -- of course, sir, I didn't understand."
"Um," said Quentin, "maybe we should actually try and help them or something."
The knot of onlookers nodded in agreement and the various Changelings went about moving Justin and Ted to some well padded lounge chairs. The big Silver Dragon gingerly lifted up Lauren and set the big bird down on some foam mats he had previously been sitting on. The Dragon turned to Quentin as he walked toward her.
"Wow Cubist," said the Dragon, lapsing out of his usual formality, "you've got quite a find there. Her body is nice and soft and she smells real good. It reminds me of flowers. I like flowers."
The Dragon had a faraway look on his face and his ability to form complex sentences had clearly suffered a distinct impairment.
"You may be right, Mike. Speaking of finds, I think yours wants to talk to you?"
Quentin gestured towards a slightly smaller female Silver Dragon that was putting some mighty deep grooves in the concrete floor as she gave her suitor the look of instant death.
"Oh shit, it looks like I am in some serious trouble. Ah well, 'tis the price I pay for wandering eyes."
"Good luck... you'll probably need it."
The mass of Changelings started to mob the three extra-reality visitors, but once again the little lizard man stepped in to control things.
"Get a hold of yourself people. In case you haven't noticed, our visitors have just sustained a little bit of trauma, and the last thing they need is you people bombarding them with questions. So, I want all Changelings not currently attending to the needs of our visitors to go back to the food tables and finish lunch. If our visitors are so inclined they can cycle through later and address your questions."
Quentin turned back to the mystical Phoenix that had first caught his attention. This time, instead of a feathered human that claimed to be a Phoenix, there lay a bird of near unimaginable proportions. 15 feet tall, a 30-foot wingspan and a beak that could pop a man's head off like a grape. Quentin blinked in surprise and reached to stroke the feathers, coincidentally trying to determine if it really was as massive as it looked, or, instead, if Lauren had ripped off his 'inflated innertube' trick..
"Wow. That's not bad at all," he declared.
Lauren shifted a bit and groaned.
"Are you ok?"
"Oooo, my head. It feels like there're a thousand jackhammers pounding on it."
Quentin shrugged off the fact that such a pure human voice was emanating from a bird's beak and vocal system and bent over to gently stroke her forehead. Lauren's eyes did not look like normal eyes in that they had no discernable pupil. They were just a sea of red and orange swirls, much like Jupiter. Slowly, as Quentin watched, the storms calmed and her eyes slowly returned to what most people would consider normal.
"Thank you Quentin," she said, gazing at him. "That feels much better."
"Thanks. What did I do?"
"Your kind stroking took my mind off the pain enough to allow me to heal myself."
"Ah. Neat trick with the eyes, by the way."
"Yeah, they have an amorphous structure. They can reform to allow me to see many different kinds of radiation in all sorts of conditions."
"No kidding? Another neat trick. That's how you detected my symbiote, right?"
"Sort of, I could also feel the energy patterns coming from your body. They were brown, like cancer. I could feel it taking over your body, feeding off your energy. I sort of jumped to a conclusion and tried to 'cure' you. Fat lot of good that did both of us."
"Gotcha. Well, you're right; the symbiote does feed off of my body. It's just that the feeding is a mutual thing, not merely one-way. So how the heck do you guys break physical laws, anyway?"
"Like I said before, magic."
"Fine, but you obviously understand it enough to use it, so how's it work?"
"My powers are built in, I don't need to know how they work. But, for magic in general it simply is a large energy manipulation system."
Quentin frowned, thinking for a second.
"But what kind of energy lets you get away with making something out of nothing?"
Lauren let out a birdy giggle.
"I'm not creating matter silly. My mass is stored in the void that exists between dimensions. I summon it when it is needed."
"So you don't really violate conservation laws, you just shove mass under a different rug, as it were. Interesting."
Lauren tried to struggle to her talons, but fell back down upon her backside.
"Looks like that impact took a little more out of me than I thought." She broke out in giggles again. "I could really go for a bottle of wine about now. Something white."
Quentin called Cody over and he happily went off to fill Lauren's order.
"Are you sure you should be drinking? You might have a concussion..."
"I'm fine, I know how to heal myself. Here, could you pour that into my beak."
Cody trotted back with a notably oversized bottle. Quentin took it from the horse morph and slowly emptied the whole thing into Lauren's open beak.
"Thank you dear, could you help me get up?"
"You're able to stand?" exclaimed Quentin, staring at the empty magnum of wine.
"I'm a 15-foot tall bird of fire. I work differently than humans, remember?"
"Um... right... it's your body, you know it better."
Lauren struggled to her feet and started to instinctively preen herself.
"So, how do you like the 'real' me?" she said between strokes.
Quentin walked around her, getting a good look from all angles. "Not bad at all."
"What was the last time you talked to a giant mythical bird?" asked Lauren, giggling.
"About 3 years ago, if us Changelings count; otherwise, never!"
"Why don't you pull out a feather? 9 out of 10 tribal religions consider them a source of extreme good luck. Go ahead, pick any one you want."
"Thank you! Um... where would it hurt least?"
"You are so sweet, but as I said, just pick one from anywhere."
Quentin reached around to her wing and grabbed a hold of a shimmery, iridescent red feather with a hint of yellow/orange. After applying a surprising around of tension the feather pulled free and Lauren let out a little yelp.
"Cool," said Quentin, a 3-foot feather now clutched in both hands.
"Um," pointed out Lauren, "I'd look down if I were you."
The blood on the end of the feather had burst into flame, burning with an intensity of several thousand degrees and of course Quentin's fur wasn't rated for those extreme temperatures.
Quentin threw the feather back at Lauren and began beating at his burning chest fur with both paws. After he had gotten it out he glared at Lauren.
"You dropped this," she said, handing back the feather.
"I think I know why a Phoenix feather is a sign of good fortune: You have to be lucky to survive the damn thing. You couldn't have offered a little warning?"
Taking it as if it were some kind of bomb, Quentin nodded and laid it on a metal folding chair for future retrieval.
""That trick you do with your extra mass... is that something you can teach other people?"
"Well, you personally wouldn't be able to do it, but I might be able to rig up some sort of magical artifact. Let me see. I'm not really the big spell designer, that more Justin's department, but from what I do know there would probably have to be three stages. First, I would have to find a way for you to be able to incorporate extra mass into your being. Second, I would need a way to store this mass in some extra-dimensional plane of existence ready to be summoned as needed. Finally, I would need to link the artifact to the magical energy from our own reality, as there are no local sources of power. Hmm, could you perhaps find a four-inch metal plate? Something shiny like copper or silver or gold or stainless steel."
"Acquiring extra mass isn't a problem for me -- I can get it by eating a big dinner."
"Think about how many dinners equal a Dragon."
"So I go through a few thousand pounds of TV dinners. Big deal."
Just then, a Centaur whose human torso looked like it had been lightly squashed in the vertical dimension clopped up and was waiting silently for some sort of permission to enter.
"I think one of your friends is here."
"Hi, Bard! This," Quentin gestured at the Phoenix, "is Lauren. She's not from around here."
The odd looking Centaur bowed by bending both forelegs, held it for a second, and then gracefully stood up.
"Charmed my lady, I always treat 30' birds of fire with the utmost respect. Although I would like to insert a question as my curiosity has been piqued. You say that your magic manipulates energy and matter, transferring things from one to the other, and from one reality to another?"
"I guess that's how it works."
"Then how does it work with regards to thermodynamics?"
"Ah, my charming and fiery lady. What I was querying about was thermodynamics -- you can't win, you can't tie, and you can't quit. In other words, since any transaction has to have a net energy loss, how efficient is your magic, and how do you deal with this loss?"
"Well, I'm just a classical studies major, but I thought that energy was conserved? Maybe you're just talking about useable energy."
"Indeed I am, for any actual conversion requires that some energy is lost to unusable heat. Of course, if magic works differently then it could be quite applicable to certain ideas that I've had. But, enough shop talk, sometimes I get too eager considering the stakes. You are quite all right, and recovered from your unfortunate fall?"
"I don't really know about this, you'll probably have to ask Justin or Ted. However, as I have heard, magic can make physical systems perform at 100% or greater efficiency, but there is a net loss of magical energy. Looking at the system in total, one might find that magical energy is simply generated by the complexities of the physical system, both seen and unseen, that we all live in. By reducing magical energy in terms of the physical energy needed to create it in the first place you would find that there is a net energy loss. However, some theories point to the fact that physical energy is tied in with the purely physical realities and magical energy stems from a completely different source that completely transcends the physical and stems from the ultimate creative force behind the multiverse. Personally, I believe that magical energy isn't really energy at all in the way we know energy. Magic alters reality at the most basic levels, sort of like using a cheat code in a video game. Normal energy heats up a piece of metal and makes the light bulb glow. Magical energy alters the source code of reality and tells the light to glow regardless of the actual 'rules'. Magic works on a higher plane of existence where important things to us such as energy momentum are nothing more than 'monopoly money' that has little or no real meaning. But then again, I'm just a classical studies major. Thank you for asking about my fall, I was able to successfully heal myself and I am feeling fine now."
"Just a classical studies major. Uh huh. Well, I take it you're feeling better, so let me welcome you to our reality and hope your stay here is a pleasant one. However, we all know little of yourselves and your journey. How was it? What's it like? What do you think of our little fading corner of reality?"
"It's a lot more stable than some of the others we've been to. If you would excuse me for just a second, I need to shift to a form that is more amenable to eating the food that has already been prepared. We Phoenixes have a rather specialized diet, you know. Purity is very important as you can guess. Fortunately, taking alternate forms allows us a bit of flexibility on those requirements."
"May I humbly suggest the form of a kindly Canadian Centaur then? The mobility is wonderful, and there is a wide range of edible goodness from my civilized country."
"I'll think I'll stick with what I know right now."
Lauren lifted up her wings in a poor imitation of a Victory statue. Her large Phoenix form was then engulfed in flames that oddly seemed to radiate no heat. When the flames died away there stood Lauren in her plain old human form.
"See, if I had turned into a Centaur," said Lauren with a sly wink, "how would I be able to do this?"
She quickly made a running leap and jumped squarely onto the middle of Bard's equine back.
"Watch yourself, Bard -- that one's a real hottie!" said Quentin in a rather amused tone.
"Giddiup!" shouted Lauren.
Bard rolled his eyes and muttered, "The things I do for the Foundation..." At a normal level of loudness, he went on: "If I may take you at a nice gentle walk, as smooth as I can manage it..?"
"Yah!" said Lauren as she kicked the oddly proportioned Centaur in his lower ribs. "Around the lower walkway and don't spare yourself."
"As you wish, my lady."
"See you later Quentin," Lauren called back, "maybe you can go hang out with Justin and Ted. That big Silver Dragon seems to be annoying them with questions."
The odd but dignified and graceful Centaur reared and then accelerated into a fast and smooth canter, with a slight favoring of his right hind leg. As he traveled he gently pushed aside others.
"Excuse me. Apologies. Sorry."
"Wheee!" cried Lauren as they circled the arena.
"So... sorry... tell me about your travels... excuse us..."
"Well, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. We met some new friends, had some close calls. To tell you the truth, this is only the fourth reality we've visited."
The Centaur stopped on a catwalk as both were now a fair distance away from the others.
"Enough. You claim to be extra-dimensional travelers. Fine. You had some close calls. I can understand that, given your panic flight result here. It also seems that you have little care or respect for others -- if you had broken through the roof which is the only thing I can conceive of you trying to achieve, what do you think would have happened to us when the rubble started falling?"
"There wouldn't have been any rubble, I would have burned a neat little hole through the non-load-bearing portion there. We're not stupid, heartless monsters you know."
"From the bit of conversation with Cubist I heard, it seems that you accidentally tried to kill him. And now, you leap onto me, without permission, as though I was a beast of burden and not a thinking creature. How would you feel if I had just leapt onto you as you were transforming to human?"
"I don't know how I would feel. You would probably vaporize before coming in contact with me. You know, most Centaurs would consider it a great honor to serve as a mount to a Phoenix."
"A great honor? I don't believe in mystical mumbo-jumbo, your 'magic' notwithstanding. But, if you want mysticism, traditionally the Phoenix appeared heralding a new age, a time of change. So what change are you bringing with you?"
"Ummm," stalled Lauren as she grasped for an answer. "I am not permitted to reveal that information at this time."
"Ah. 'Not permitted to reveal because we're superior', is it? My ass you are," and Bard started to canter again to work off his frustration.
Before long Lauren huffed.
"Can't you go any faster," she demanded.
For a second the Centaur slowed down, sighed, and then stated,
"As you wish, oh mighty mystical Phoenix."
And then he accelerated into a trot, a canter, and then a gallop, and then screaming waves of pain which he managed to keep silent as he stumbled and fell, sending Lauren flying off him.
"What happened?" demanded Lauren, who had managed to dead-stick the landing.
"Oh mighty Phoenix, omnipotent harbinger of change and wisdom, all-powerful healer of the sick and injured: What the fucking hell do you think?!?!?!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
"Um, something is wrong with you leg and it hurts?"
The Centaur staggered to his hooves, choking down tears, and stepped over until he was glaring down at her.
"What the fuck..." He swallowed, turned away and continued through gritted teeth, his voice almost a whimper, "Yes, my hip is defective. It's not a god bedamned symbiote, it's not an enhancement or a change, it's a god bedamned, god forsaken, incorrectly set and mishealed hip."
Then Bard collapsed, sobbing. Lauren instinctively bent down and wrapped her hands around Bard's human half, comforting him with touch both mental and physical, taking the burden of his pain onto herself.
"Tell me what happened," she said, slowly raising the Centaur back onto his hooves.
With a visible effort, the Centaur forced his emotions down.
"I am an intellectual being, and I will not let this body rule me. My apologies. The reason is simple -- I helped a little girl not get hit by an idiot talking on a cell phone and the car hit me. Medical personnel arrived, and fixed me up as best they could, but as they were not familiar with my physiology, they didn't do it quite right. One of the joys and curses of my body is that it is very hormone-driven, particularly in the need to gallop. To me, galloping is almost an addiction, a drug high that this body craves. After ten years of testing, trials, guesses as to the cause, all of human medical science has been unable to fix the problem so I have learned to live, mostly, with my continuous withdrawal symptoms."
"Well why didn't you say anything? I'm not God you know. I can't just read your mind and know what's wrong. Well, I can, but that's beside the point. Instead of getting mad at me you could have just asked. In fact you can still ask."
Lauren, heeding Quentin's suggestion, was not about to have a repeat of that morning's spontaneous surgery.
"So why do I have to ask, and Cubist down there didn't? Is there a reason you're playing with me? But, nonetheless, if that is your price, oh mighty mystical Phoenix, yes I ask. I beg. My body begs. My being begs. My soul begs. Anything else?"
"You see, I don't ask, I almost kill a man and then I get yelled at for not asking. Well I can learn from my mistakes so this time I wait for the patient's permission and again, I get yelled at. Well Mr. Bitter-taur, I'll heal you, but you can forget about any sort of bedside manner. Now stand your ass up straight and don't wiggle. Follow me into this little alcove here. We don't really want a crowd."
"'Bitter-taur', eh? A good name, that. Unfortunate, but unavoidable I'm afraid. As much as I may wish otherwise, we're all only the sum of our biology -- even you. And, if you can deliver, you will have a slave for life."
Bard staggered up, but before he could react Lauren literally reached her hand into the place where his human half joined his horse half. He felt something move around and then suddenly felt his hind bits go numb as everything below his waist froze up like a statue.
"Ok, this shouldn't hurt... much," said Lauren.
"At this point, any pain would be little enough purgatory for my lack of control affecting my discussion with you."
Again taking her hand, the Phoenix girl reached into Bard's rump about where his hip was and began to feel around. Feeling someone reaching around inside him was one of the more unique sensations Bard had experienced during his time on Earth.
"Aha!" exclaimed Lauren, "I think I feel the problem."
There was a short pause while she felt around a bit more. A bemused expression took over her face.
"This! This is the problem your medical science just can not fix? This little bone misalignment? Are they still using ether to knock people out before surgery or something?"
The problem, dear lady, playful saviour, is in an awkward and dangerous location, or so I've been told. And, they have tried."
"Ah... now I see what you mean. It is in a pretty awkward location, what with all the nerves and muscles and everything. Don't worry, I'll have it fixed for you in half a jiff."
As Bard's entire body trembled with suppressed hope, Lauren reached her hand back in again, but from Bard's end the movements were clearly something more than just 'probing'. Suddenly he felt something give and his rear right leg went completely limp. Lauren carefully withdrew her arm and turned to Bard to hand him something.
"Here take this and whatever you do, don't drop it."
He grabbed it and clenched it tight, staring at the mass of muscle quivering in his hand in shock, feeling his hand on his muscle, and his muscle on his hand, lightening his grip to reduce the sensation of his hand crushing his muscle. Lauren once again went back to work. This time a bright glow came from within his hindquarters as if someone had turned on an arc-welder. In fact, from time to time small orange sparks shot out of his solid looking and still flawless hide. Lauren started to whistle a little tune as she worked. After what felt like about 7 minutes she stopped her tune, withdrew her hand and smacked Bard a few times on his rump.
"There, that should do it," she declared.
Bard glanced for a second at the still quivering muscle in his hand and then turned to look at her.
"Didn't you forget something?"
"Oh, whoops. Silly me, how could I have forgotten that?"
Lauren gingerly took the reddish piece of horseflesh from the Centaur and brought it around to his rear. With a disturbing sucking sound she pushed the muscle back into his hide and with a couple twists of her fingers Bard felt the strength return to his leg. Bard just stared at her with a desperate hope in his eyes.
"Ok, is there anything else I can do you for?"
"Err, could you reconnect my spine, or unstop my nerves, or whatever you did to keep me from moving?"
"Sure, but while I have the hood up, are there any other things you might want fixed? Cramp, indigestion, those love handles, clogged arteries, impotence, halitosis, excess nose hair, maybe those stupid deformities around your neck?"
"I do not have love handles, and those 'deformities' are vital to my respiratory system. However, you might as well do the clogged arteries."
"Ok -- one artery plaque massage coming up."
Starting at his rear equine legs Lauren began to work her magical hands over the Centaur's supple body, the sensations producing an involuntary response more usually associated with private theaters in the bad part of town. The more the poor horse-man got aroused the more Lauren seemed to enjoy it. Giggling she worked her way up his human torso, light brushes of glowing plasma streaming around his body, his breathing shallow and rapid. Finally Bard's breathing staggered as Lauren worked around his neck. She pulled back as Bard began to cough up a viscous yellow substance interspersed with small granular crystals.
"Tsk tsk. You need to take better care of your body," remarked Lauren, looking at the large pool of plaque. " Hmmm, those look like some sort of kidney or gall stones. Maybe you should go see a vet or something and get it checked out."
"I have, dear lady. Unfortunately the kidney stones are a genetic defect, and they can be minimized but not eliminated."
"Gee, it sounds like God was asleep at the quality control station when your body was manufactured."
"If there was a god, you could have a point. However, if you can repair the genetic defect I certainly won't complain."
"Well I can try, but keep in mind I really haven't had any formal training or experience dealing with genetic manipulation. There's an even chance that you would end up as some sort of lizard. But if that's what you really want..."
"No no, that's fine. It was just a thought. So," Bard's eyes lit up and his heart beat faster, "I can gallop now?"
Lauren hopped on his back, undid the block on his spine and wrapped her arms around his human half.
"I don't see why not. Warp speed, Mr. Sulu!"
Hesitantly at first, Bard started at a slow walk, then a trot, a canter which he held for almost a minute building up his nerve, and then a glorious, continuous gallop around and around the walkway, screaming out his joy with Lauren.
Backing up a bit, Quentin had watched the fine feathered friend steal his fine hoofed friend and ride off into the great walkways that ringed the Garden. He turned around and surveyed what was going on in the rest of the arena. Most of his fellow Changelings had done as requested and fallen back to give the visitors some room. Many sat on the perimeter of this imaginary circle talking amongst themselves about all the possibilities real magical creatures could provide them. The rest had retreated to the drink tables that were located near the exits and were probably comparing the possible evacuation routes in case things turned violent. Finally he turned towards the biggest set of unknowns in the equation: Lauren's buddies, the so-called Justin and Ted. With their temper and fearsome arsenal, they might as well have been a hydrogen bomb waiting for the signal to detonate. Even the simple act of being asked for ID had freaked them out to the point where they had damn near killed everyone in the room! The great Lord Cubist would have to handle these two clowns with care. Unfortunately, what was happening now was most definitely not the way to do that. Mike, the big Silver Dragon, was currently annoying the hell out of Justin and Ted with what seemed like an avalanche of questions. Quentin increased his pace, intent on getting there before someone got killed.
"...and that's what he told me. So, have you talked with your spirits lately?"
"Um, no," said Ted.
"I think I did," said Justin. "He took over my body and made me kill people. I think his name is Munisthriskbarithcong or something."
"No no! Don't tell me the true name of your spirit," said Mike, clamping his talons over his ears. "That is the most important secret a Dragon has. It is meant for only you and your mate. This is very important as..."
"Yeah, I hear you," said Justin, obviously getting even more irritated. "You don't have to speak so loud."
"Aha! There you are, Mike! I see you've met Justin and Ted. He's not monopolizing your time, is he?" said Quentin, stepping in between them. Slapping one of Mike's forepaws, he turned to the large predator. "Bad Dragon! No virgin for you tonight!"
"I'm not so sure about that," said Mike, glancing over his shoulder at the female Silver who was busily munching on a cow. "See, Justin and Ted said that they would make me a pair of necklaces that would enable me to use magic. Naturally I would present the other to my love over there as a token of my affection. You see, I figured out that my body is completely magic-ready, it just lacks a power source. It's like cable TV. Justin and Ted are simply going to hook me up. It's really quite interesting the way it works..."
"Enough, Mike. We heard the analogy the first time," growled Ted. "The deal was that you stop asking questions and we give you the spells."
"Oh, that's right, sorry."
Quentin could have sworn the Dragon blushed right through those thick silver scales as he turned and ambled away.
"Sorry about that -- I really ought to have warned you; Brotzman is, well, a tiny bit obsessive about Dragons."
"No," said Justin. "Ted here is a tiny bit obsessive," pointing to the Emerald Dragon's tail. "That guy was a freaking Dragon fanatic."
"Yeah. You've heard how some people have a bee in their bonnet about some particular subject? Brotzman has entire hives."
"Well, sorry about the little disruption there. We have a little fear about being captured, thrown in a steel room and then slowly dissected," said Ted.
"Not to worry. Some of us felt exactly the same way at first, but it just hasn't happened yet, even after 10 full years."
"Thanks for the food," said Justin, polishing off a large plate of bacon.
"De nada. We were prepped for a horde of massive appetites; Brotzy isn't the only Changeling who's larger than life!"
"You guys are quite a collection," said Ted looking around at all the various morphs and animals. "It's like I walked into some sort of Zoo gift shop."
"Tell me about it," Quentin said ruefully. "We got all kinds of freaks and geeks, believe me. Even a Xenomorph, from the Aliens flicks!"
Justin concentrated for a second and then pulled a large shotgun from behind his back. Quentin wondered why, since he'd informed the three travelers about the Xenomorph, Morgan, when they first entered the Garden.
"Oooooh! It has been one of my biggest dreams to be able to hunt one of those. Would you kindly point me in the right direction? Do they have it caged or is it running around loose?"
Not letting himself display any worry as regards Justin's apparent lapse of memory, Quentin reached up and gently pushed the shotgun into a safe position.
"Not so fast, Buffalo Bill. This one isn't a mindless berserker -- but if you start a fight, there's gonna be a shitload of collateral damage, and that means we'd lose our deposit on this place, okay? No killing!"
"So what? You didn't put up the deposit for this place, Michael Jackson did, at least that's what that freaky lizard man told me," said Justin.
"Hey," asked Ted, "did the Alien have to pay royalties?"
"Yeah," said Quentin, "there was a big stink. I think they demanded several million, but luckily Jackson was there to bail him out."
"You keep mentioning the king of perversion," said Justin, "but I don't see him around."
"So you believe everything you read in the National Enquirer?" So saying, Quentin pointed to a 10-year-old Black kid. "There's the man right now, if you want to get the straight dope from the source."
Justin gave Ted a sidelong glance.
"Hey," said Justin, "it saves on out of court settlements."
"Why go out for milk when you can turn into a cow," countered Ted.
They both broke down and started rolling on the floor laughing.
"Maybe the Michael Jackson in your world is a pervert, but the one we've got is just rich and a little eccentric. There was that one legal hassle about pedophilia, but face it -- if that charge were true, do you think the kid's father would have been content with anything less than Jackson's head on a pike? That son of a bitch was going for the gold, pure and simple."
Ted picked himself off the ground and noticed a fuzzy object sitting in a fancy-looking chair next to him.
"Awwwww, look at this. How adorable."
Ted picked up the mid-sized stuffed bear, not noticing the soft 'plick' of electronic cables being pulled out of their sockets, and give it a big hug.
"Man, I had a bear like this when I was a kid... until my dad ran over it with the lawn mover." Tears formed in his eyes. "I really loved that bear."
His grip on the one in his possession increased exponentially as he utilized all of his draconic strength. Parts of the plushie began to bulge dangerously.
"Hey! Cut that out!" exclaimed Quentin. He grabbed a hold of the free end of one of the cables and waved it in Ted's face. "Do you mind putting him back so I can reconnect him?"
"Him?" gasped Ted, looking shocked.
"Yes, 'him'. His name is George Harris, and The Event left him totally paralyzed and unable to communicate."
As he spoke, Quentin plugged the loose end of the cable into the back of the chair the bear was sitting on. A flatscreen display lit up and a message appeared in large capital letters:
"HELP! I'M BEING CRUSHED! OH GOD SOMEBODY STOP HIM PLEASE! HELP ME!"
Ted quickly put the bear back on the chair as Quentin restored the rest of the connections. Soon a synthetic voice was emanating from something on the chair.
"Thank you, Quentin. Who is this presumptuous and impolite person?"
"Sorry about that, George. His name is Ted, and I didn't have a chance to explain before he grabbed you."
"You mean this guy turned into a stuffed animal?" asked Justin, clearly astounded. "Holy shit, that's like being trapped in some sort of living hell."
"Ya think?" George muttered.
"He's biological, he just looks plush. But that about sums it up otherwise," Quentin explained. "When I first learned how to mindlink, George was one of the first Changelings I tried it on... and I have no idea how he managed to retain any sanity. Fortunately, we were able to get him hooked up with a voice, the motorized chair and so on."
"Are there any other surprises you should warn us about?" asked Ted.
"Well... there's a few people whose bodies are completely animal. Like Bob Stein -- he's the black stallion over there."
"Good thing you told me," said Justin, "I thought he was brought in for the Dragons."
"Er... right. Um. Look. Do you guys have any ability to sense life directly?"
"Sort of," said Ted. "Like when I'm flying over a field at night I can sort of sense the life of anything below me. That allows me to swoop down and kill it without like needing night vision goggles or anything."
"Well, just... if it's alive and it's in here, don't kill it, okay?"
"No fair!" complained Justin. "That stupid Silver Dragon was eating a cow! I want a cow too."
"You mean you're not about to have one anyway? Alright, I'll see what I can do..."
Suddenly a large snowball sailed in from somewhere in the arena and nailed Quentin right smack on the side of his head. Justin and Ted burst out laughing and after a while the annoying Silver Dragon and a petite arctic fox morph, each holding a large container of what looked to be snow, ambled up to the group.
"See, I said I could hit him from all the way across the room," Mike said to the pure white fox morph.
"Who's the puffball?" asked Ted, after containing his laughter.
Quentin rolled his eyes, somewhat amused.
"That's Lewis Greene, and I'm surprised he could make it this far South."
He turned to the plucky little fox.
"Hey, Red! How you holding up?"
"I'm a little hot. Fortunately our big silver friend here was kind enough to treat me to a little snowball fight."
"Next time try wearing more layers," suggested Ted.
Lewis looked down at his bare white fur, barely covered by a pair of light summer shorts.
"Thanks. I'll keep that in mind next time I transform."
The fox and the Dragon went off to resume their fight while Justin and Ted continued their conversation with Quentin. Just as Justin was beginning to wonder where their cow was, they overheard what sounded like a heated debate between a tall humanoid wolf and an excessively oversized and over-massive humanoid killer whale.
"My dear fellow," the wolf stated, "killing the SRU wizard simply isn't done! For one thing, he has enough personal magical power to overcome any reasonable assault."
"I think he's an old flake," said the whale. "The only reason nobody has killed him is because they are too busy being transformed into a bimbo by all of those little artifacts he surrounds himself with."
"That is precisely my point, Sir. Long before any would-be assailant is in any position to launch his attack, said miscreant is transformed into a state from which he is no longer capable of doing so! And that is the core of the Old Man's power."
"Well, I've never read any stories where anyone's ever tried to kill him. We don't know how he'd react to a motivated attempt on his life."
"Are you guys talking about the Spells R Us wizard?" asked Justin, walking over.
"Um, yeah," replied the whale, slightly intimidated by the trans-dimensional Dragon that had suddenly decided to enter his conversation.
"Boy, that little fuck sure gets around. I had to deal with that jerk in the last reality. I hope I don't run into him here as I would find myself obliged to dispatch him to the hereafter yet again," declared Justin.
Both the wolf and the whale blinked, not quite knowing how to respond.
"Excuse me? Am I to understand that you actually did encounter the Old Man in your previous adventures?"
"Yeah, I ran into his shop out in Valley Stream while trying to hunt down some good Indian food. The dickhead turned me into a woman when I used his bathroom. I guess the bathroom was for customers only or something. Of course, I then found myself obligated to inflict some sort of revenge upon him and things sort of got out of hand from there."
"A most... curious... assertion, inasmuch as that gentleman is, to the best of my knowledge, entirely fictional!"
"Well, he wasn't fictional when he turned me into a big breasted bimbo. He also wasn't fictional when he turned me into a poodle. And he sure as hell wasn't fictional when I destroyed his shop and raised his body temperature to something like 2000 degrees."
The wolf was nonplused by Justin's matter-of-fact attitude towards gross overkill.
"See," said the whale, seizing the opportunity, "I told you he could be killed."
"If," said the wolf, turning back to the whale, "the squamous gentleman is indeed responsible for destroying a real person... it has little bearing on the conduct of a fictional character, no matter how closely the character resembles the person."
"Given the laws of probability and an infinite set of realities, for all you know 'the squamous gentleman' has traveled to the reality which the fictional SRU wizard is based on," responded the whale.
"Yeah," said Ted. "I am going to have to side with the big guy on this one. That other universe we went to really read like a fictional story as well. Can you believe a world where all the cars actually turned into horses? That's just plain wacky."
The wolf turned to Justin.
"Sir, I am... confident... that your reference to wanton death and destruction is merely a joke of questionable taste. May I suggest that it might be wise to exercise caution regarding whom you make such jests in the presence of, please? Wait, did your friend just say something about cars turning into horses?"
"Yeah -- cars turning into horses? Get real!" interjected Quentin.
"Why do you keep thinking that we're making this up?" asked Ted. "We have no reason to lie to you about this. It was this crazy Earth where all the transportative machines like turned into biological equivalents. Don't blame us if the multiverse is screwy."
"But that's not a different reality," said Quentin. "That's just Passing Fad."
"What's Passing Fad?" asked Justin.
"It was a story universe on the old Transformation Talk list. The one we were all on when we changed. The whole premise was what you just described, cars turning into horses and whatnot."
"What is a story universe?" queried Ted.
"You know how a TV show has various characters and background elements that are common to all the episodes? That's basically what a story universe is; a ready-made setting that people can write their own tales for, just as authors write episodes for a TV series."
Quentin suddenly got very serious. "You're not kidding, are you."
"For the Nth time, no I'm not kidding. We really did visit that screwed-up world, okay?" said Justin.
"Okay, sorry, but, I think you can see where it would be hard to believe... Look, at this point there's no way to tell if you really did visit the actual setting, or some parallel timeline that just happens to resemble it, or what. But Christ on a sidecar, if Blue Knight hears about this, he'll be insufferable for weeks on end!"
"Why?" asked Ted.
"Because Blue Knight has this crazy idea that the Universe is a story he's one of the main characters in. He'll latch onto your adventures as proof positive, and just be absolutely intolerable about it."
"Ah, I see," said Justin. "I know plenty of people like that myself."
"Right. So mum's the word, okay?"
Justin and Ted both responded in the affirmative. It was about this time that the joyful shouts of both Centaur and Phoenix began to echo through the arena. Looking around and then at Quentin, both Justin and Ted indicated that they had better go find their compatriot and bring her under control.
"Follow me," Quentin sighed, "we can head her off over by where they keep the Zamboni machine."
By the time they reached the tunnel the flirtatious Phoenix was nowhere to be seen, but a rather sweaty Centaur could be observed rinsing himself off with a garden hose.
Justin only needed to take one look.
"Man, Lauren will do it with anything. She's a freaking public health hazard. Who knows what she could end up tracking back to our reality."
"Don't worry," said Ted. "I'll run to the store and lay in an extra supply of bleach."
Those parts of the Centaur that could, turned bright red and for a second the horse-man just stared, then glared, then finally spoke.
"We did not 'do it' as you so unkindly suggested."
"Then what were you two doing?" inquired Justin.
"What we were doing was an act of healing. And if you dare think anything else of her, then you don't deserve her company."
"Well I'm glad you finally got your hip fixed up," said Quentin, who had noted Bard's cheers after he had gone off with the Phoenix, and put two and two together. "Where by chance is the colorful bird?"
"I don't know. She jumped off a few minutes ago and I needed to get myself cooled off so I trotted over here."
"Hey, Centaur," called Ted.
"The name is Bard," Bard replied.
"Whatever, can you maybe introduce us to some of your friends? Your group seems to include a whole bunch of interesting people."
Bard sighed, turned the hose off and started to towel himself dry.
"I guess I could show you around after I get the dampness out of my coat."
"I'll help you with that," said Justin grabbing a towel.
Quentin was about to jump into the mass drying when a scaled talon pulled him aside.
"Hey, could you give this to Ted?" asked the Silver Dragon, holding out two stainless steel plates about six inches square. "He said he would fashion them into spells."
"Why don't you give them to him yourself."
"I think I have bugged him enough for one day. I don't want to jeopardize Ted's promise to work the magic."
"Just what exactly are these spells going to do?" inquired Quentin suspiciously.
"I'll show you when they are done," the Dragon countered slyly.
Quentin rolled his eyes and then, against his better judgment, walked over, tapped Ted on the shoulder, and handed over the plates.
Suddenly there was a rush of air and silver wings as the female Silver Dragon landed at the mouth of the alcove. Mike's scaly visage seemed to glow.
"Why hello my lady, didst thou come to provide me with company?" he said, leaning close to inhale her rich scent.
"Aw, get over yourself," she replied, smacking him upside the head. "I have a note for Lord Cubist."
"Ah, that would be me," said Quentin, reaching out to take the note. Given that Brotzy was the only person who ordinarily called him 'Lord Cubist', he wondered just why Mike would send him a note when he was standing right there. He looked at the Dragon, still trying to hit on the female and unsealed the letter that was of course from... Lauren?
That made no sense. Lauren didn't know about his alter ego. Maybe she'd read something about his acting career, but there was no reason for her to address him that way. Realizing that he hadn't actually read the note yet, Quentin unfolded the paper.
|Dear Lord Cubist:
I am sorry for what happened during your previous attempt to mind link with me. I am waiting in Skybox 4F if you would care to try again in a slightly more "private" setting.
Quentin shook his head. 'Great Lady of Fire'? No doubt about it, she was getting caught up in the persona that she expected her body to come with, and the sooner she came to her senses, the better.
Getting lost in a new persona was a problem that more than a few Changelings had suffered in the early years, just after The Event. Quentin's resolve to find the true, core Lauren persona was stiffened by this note; he made his way through the crowd, doing 'drive-by schmoozes' to avoid getting caught up in lengthy conversations, until he reached a flight of stairs at the edge of the arena.
After the long climb up many levels, effortless by cheetah standards, Quentin arrived at the door to Skybox 4F. Trying the knob he found it unlocked and, after knocking softly, let himself in. Upon his initial inspection, the box appeared to be deserted, but the familiarly pungent smell of flowers let Quentin know that he was most likely not alone.
"Lauren? You here?"
"Oops, one second," came a voice from behind the wet bar. "I'm just getting things ready."
"That's not a problem," said Quentin, "but there is something I am just dying to know the answer to."
"Go ahead," called Lauren from once again from behind the bar.
"How did you know to address me as Lord Cubist? Did Brotzy say anything to you?"
"The big male Silver Dragon."
"No, he didn't say anything to me."
"Then how did you know? Someone must have told you."
Quentin was really hoping that was true.
Lauren giggled and poked her head up.
"How do you think I know any of the things I know? I am a Phoenix, or did you forget?"
"Well, sure, you're a Phoenix. But I've never heard anything about omniscience being associated with Phoenixes, so what's the story here?"
"Well it could either be that when I look at you something inside of me just screams out 'that's Lord Cubist' or the fact that when I probe you I hear a part of your mind that addresses itself that way. Take your pick."
"So you're saying tha --"
At that moment Lauren stepped out from behind the wet bar forgetting something fairly important, namely her clothes. Parts of here were still covered in feathers (well, more like down), but even they left little to the imagination.
"-- aaaahh..." trailed off Quentin.
"I thought you'd like it. I made some slight modifications so to have my body conform to the ideal feminine image I found in your mind."
Flowers and now a clothing-free Phoenix; it didn't take a three-digit IQ to deduce what Lauren had in mind. After a short (and appreciative) pause, Quentin said, quietly, "I'm sorry, Lauren, but the answer is still no. Thank you for the... ah... attention, though."
Quentin then saw a flash of red energy that moved around the doors and windows to the skybox.
"What are you afraid of? You're not going to hurt anybody. I have sealed off the room to ensure both that and our privacy. I find you intriguing Quentin. I know what's in your mind and I know your fears. Now is possibly the one and only chance you'll get to confront those fears in a situation that poses absolutely no risk to yourself or others."
The intoxicating flower smell in the room increased exponentially and Quentin felt himself losing control.
"Lauren... I... don't think..."
"No, you don't. Not now," she breathed, sidling up to Quentin, "and not for the next few hours."
To Quentin's both shock and excitement the humanoid form of Lauren melted away to reveal a large red, orange and purple bird. The beak opened to produce a sensual trill and Quentin found himself embraced in feathered wings, the ashen remains of his clothes falling to the floor.
"So," Ted continued, "just wear this close to your body and you'll receive all the magical powers you are entitled to, although the recharge rate might leave a little something to be desired."
"I can not thank you enough Ted and Justin," the Dragon gushed. "Being constantly aware of the absence of my powers has been almost more than I can bear. Your arrival has been a godsend and I will be eternally in your debt. Where is the other one? The Phoenix, I wish to thank her as well."
"I don't know," said Ted, "I haven't seen her for a couple of hours."
"Hey, here she comes," said Justin, looking up from his crossword puzzle.
"Lady Lauren," the Dragon called, "I would express my many thanks."
Lauren didn't respond and maintained a steady course and speed. As she got nearer one could make out a bemused expression on her rock solid face, her eyes steady as a laser designating some unknown target across the arena. Her gait was stilted, almost a limp and her whole body, although rigid, was noticeably off plumb. Her collision avoidance mechanisms also seemed to be off-line, as she bounced lightly (and blindly) off of obstacles in her path, including people, chairs, and tables.
"Hey Laur, you ok?" asked Justin in a friendly fashion.
Lauren didn't reply. She walked right by them as if they weren't there. Turning slightly, she disappeared into a corridor that led somewhere deep within the arena.
"That is a perfectly odd friend you have there," remarked the Silver Dragon. "That's part of the reason we Dragons don't tend to hang around with those fiery red avians. They're just too darn unfathomable."
"I guess I'll go see what's wrong."
He took off down the corridor whence Lauren had emerged from, leaving Ted and Brotzy in awkward silence.
"Yo Dragon," asked Ted after a moment, "where's a good place to eat around here."
Blue Knight, famed lizard man and adept reunion organizer had just gotten off the phone trying to arrange 500 pounds of hay to be delivered for the final banquet that was to take place the next day. As he turned around to go find the caterer he ran smack into an MSG event staffer barring his path.
"Excuse me, are you, um," the man looked at his clipboard, "Blue Knight?"
"Yes, that would be me. Why do you ask?"
"There has been some damage and we just wanted to inform you."
"Damage? What kind of damage?"
"Is this your signature here?"
"Yes yes, now what is all of this about? What are you saying about damage?"
"Someone, or something, got into Skybox 4F and made an absolute mess of the place. The furniture has been reduced to kindling, everything that was bolted down isn't any more, the bar has been destroyed, the TV monitors have all exploded, there are burns and char marks everywhere, and the room is knee deep in some kind of translucent goo. As the signatory to the rental agreement you are responsible for all damage done to the premises during your event. My only question is whether the goo in that room is non-toxic."
"Just hold on a second here. How do you know that one of the reunion-goers was even responsible for this mess?"
"Oh, yeah, it was that other group of non-humans with the freaky powers and weird bodily fluids. Now, is the goo toxic or isn't it? We need to get that space cleaned as we have a concert here next Friday."
"How am I supposed to know if the stuff is toxic? I haven't even seen it."
"Thank you, that's all I needed to know."
The man began to write down something on his clipboard.
"Your bill will include the cost of toxicity testing, and for your sake I hope those tests are negative. The cleanup of hazardous material is triple the standard rate and if we have to close it, you will also be responsible for any lost revenue."
The man ripped something off his clipboard and handed a pink copy to Blue Knight.
"Have a good day sir."
The man turned and walked away leaving the bright green lizard staring at the flimsy receipt in his hand.
Heads turned and pigeons took to the air as thousands of people in the area wondered where that strange sound came from.
In a bathroom in a hotel near MSG IV, the grate popped off the heating vent and clattered onto the tile floor. Slowly, a gray, viscous blob began to ooze out of the duct, each portion landing in the black granite bathtub with a splat that was reminiscent of homemade oatmeal. The substance filled the bottom of the tub to a depth of about six inches and then sat there... and sat there... and sat there... and sat there. Finally, after much sitting, the seemingly inanimate pudding slowly began to come to life. It began to surge and swirl, a hump began to form in the middle of the tub and little tendrils grew up the sides. The consistency began to even out, bones began to condense providing structure and support, the lump in the middle rose up into a rudimentary torso. The tendrils along the side of the tub thickened into arms, legs and tail before breaking loose from their anchorage and shifting to their more correct locations as the level of shapeshifter soup slowly went down. A head appeared and skin began forming to cover the throbbing mass of gelatinized cells as they went about their job of rearranging themselves into tissue, muscle, vascular systems and organs. After some time eyes appeared on the face of what could be mistaken for a gray blow-up doll, then a slit for a mouth and finally holes for nose and ears. The mouth opened, drawing air into newly formed lungs. The eyes, nose and ears began sending input to the brain that was blissfully deprived of sensory stimulus. The moment of awakening came as a shock to the still recovering protoform. It wanted to scream, it wanted to panic, it wanted to run around in circles, but it was far too weak to do more than gasp and quiver. Finally, the sensations died down and what could arguably be called Quentin Long got control of his breathing and attempted to come to terms with what had just happened to him. His fur was just starting to grow back when he heard some activity coming from outside his door. There came a knock... and then another.
"Hey Quentin," called the all too familiar voice of Justin, "are you in there?"
The knocking resumed, although it probably would count as pounding by this point. Even if Quentin had been inclined to alert the three to his presence, he lacked the energy to project his voice through two sets of doors.
"Do you think he's here?" came the unmistakable voice of Lauren.
"I don't know," said Ted.
"There's only one way to find out," said Justin.
Quentin was aware of some more scrabbling at his door before his lock clicked open with an electronic beep.
"This attachment you got for my PDA has more than paid for itself Ted," Quentin heard Justin remark from inside his hotel suite.
Quentin did his best to emulate a sigh. If the day's previous events hadn't been enough, now they had to break into his hotel room. He couldn't help but wonder just why on Earth they needed to find him so badly.
"I call the bed," said Ted, answering his question.
"Nuts, said Justin "I guess I got the couch."
"I'll just empty out Quentin's suitcases, grab the extra blankets and pillows and make a nest on the floor," said Lauren.
"Man I'm hungry," said Ted.
"We just ate," Justin replied. "Remember? The fancy restaurant? The 500 dollar bill?"
"Well it just didn't fill me up."
"So call room service," suggested Lauren. "I was talking to Quentin, he's some sort of media star. He had more than enough money to treat a few travelers to a post-dinner snack."
Ted could be heard picking up the phone and dialing.
"You want anything Justin?"
"Champagne, something before 1986."
"You got it."
Razor-sharp spikes started forming on Quentin's body in an unconscious response to his emotions.
"Be right back guys, this Phoenix has to freshen up."
Thanks to Quentin's extremely non-standard entrance through the heating vent, the bathroom door was still unlocked and Lauren didn't think twice about walking right in. In fact, she didn't think twice about anything other than the business she was seeking to attend to. Even though the suite's bathroom was quite large by hotel standards, Lauren had to limit her natural form's size as she shifted back to Phoenix. Waddling over to the toilet she raised her tail feathers and took careful aim. Her wandering eyes met Quentin's murderous glare.
"Fancy meeting you here."
"Ahhh, Quentin!" she started.
Her tail jerked aside and a glowing blob of Phoenix excrement tumbled forth, leaving a smoldering hole as it promptly melted through the faux-marble floor. Somewhere below them a woman screamed.
Quentin cast a dubious glance at the smoking mini-crater. "That's hot shit. Literally."
Lauren swung her tail end back over the toilet and each successive nugget was quenched in a cloud of steam.
"Dare I ask why you three didn't just grab an unoccupied room for yourselves?"
"We didn't think you'd mind," Lauren replied. "How and when did you get back here?"
"That's a little unclear, frankly. When I came to my senses, I was in the bathtub. What the hell did you do to me, anyway?"
"We just had a little Phoenix nookie," said Lauren with a wink.
Quentin looked at her coldly and very much annoyed. He thought of all the horrible things that could have gone wrong; 'Phoenix STDs' was only the first item on his long list. Quentin then saw Lauren glaring at him.
"Phoenixes do not carry disease, sexually transmitted or otherwise," she snarled.
"And how am I supposed to know that?" replied Quentin, quickly realizing she was telepathic.
Lauren mumbled something about mortals.
"Are you better than us lowly mortals, or are you just more powerful? Sorry, but I don't approve of 'might makes right', and I also don't approve of rape."
"So now you're calling it rape," she said with a sly smirk on her face. "It didn't seem like rape when you were in the throes of the greatest ecstasy ever experienced by a mortal in your little planet's history."
Quentin hesitated and the memories came back while Lauren's smile grew. However, Quentin quickly recovered.
"So it's right if it feels good? In that case, why not just plant a wire in my brain and tickle my pleasure center with current 24/7? Lady, I call it rape because I said 'No', and you blew me off and made it happen anyway."
"First of all you should be thanking me for letting me overcome your fears. Second, a female can't rape a male. Third, you should be at least grateful for the lasting gift I bestowed upon you."
"Bullshit a female can't commit rape! Maybe you didn't use brute physical force, but you definitely fucked with my mind so that I did something against my will!"
"Foolish mortal! I can read your mind. You don't think I know what you want? I am a Phoenix. I have a duty and responsibility to heal, be it mentally or physically. I will not stand by while unfulfilled sexual urges tear at some poor person's psyche."
At this point Quentin abruptly stopped yelling as he realized what she just said.
"Wait a second. 'Gift'? What 'gift'?" he said with a sinking feeling in pit of his stomach.
Lauren puffed her plumage.
"Don't you remember anything? Your old form was rather ill suited for 'satisfying' my 'needs' as a Phoenix. At the time I felt the best thing to do was give you the ability to ignore mass restrictions." Her gaze shifted hungrily towards Quentin's crotch. "And boy can you."
The conversation stopped dead. Quentin was in shock, big time. After a while, he finally regained the ability to speak.
"A-and... how is this act of mercy... going to go wrong..."
Quentin was aghast, even horrified at the thought that this grossly irresponsible flaming ball of feathers had reached inside him, again, and stirred his guts around, again, with no sign of true comprehension, again.
"Oh, nothing is going to go wrong, silly," she chided. "I simply infused your body with some magical components from my world and then created a link to power the spell. We loaded you up on some starter mass back before we began. It's enough to grow up to ten times your normal size."
Lauren licked her lips again for some reason.
"'Magical components'," Quentin echoed in a near-dead tone of voice.
While Quentin didn't believe in the occult himself, he did have a fair smattering of knowledge in that field, thanks largely to acquaintances who did believe in it... and he hoped to God she wasn't serious, because all his sources agreed that magic could be some nasty shit to get mixed up in.
"Stop being such a worry puss! I'm a highly trained professional Phoenix. I deal with magic every day. Oh wait, I'm made of magic."
"My symbiotes would disagree with you there."
"So my healing skills are a little rusty, let's see you do any better."
By this point, Quentin was visibly shaking and unsteady. He slowly sat back, lowering himself to sit on the rim of the bathtub.
"I can do you aloe vera..." he said absently, at which point a couple of patches of his black dotted fur transmuted into the smooth, green, hairless 'skin' of the healing plant.
Lauren began to realize just how zonked Quentin really was now that he was unconsciously turning parts of himself into plant-form. She sent a wave of calming, healing energy into the cheetah's mind to restore his equilibrium.
"Frankly, Quentin, with all the experience Justin, Ted and myself have had with magic, I think I am more than qualified to enable you to ignore mass restrictions."
"Experience? Like your experience smashing into the roof?" shot back Quentin who was once again fighting to remain coherent.
"No. Experience like we got from transforming thousands of people who paid us millions of dollars for that service. And experience like the transformation bridge that is now being used by the Government, you know, which they wouldn't do if it was an unsafe piece of crap!"
Quentin started to work himself up again which prompted Lauren to give him another dose of calming energy.
"So people paid you millions of dollars for the use of your bridge?" he said after the energy took effect. "Wait, wait... transformation bridge!" exclaimed Quentin.
"Yeah, how do you think we got these lovely forms you see us in today?"
"So you guys weren't kidding. You really were the cause of your world's Event," said Quentin, gasping in disbelief.
"Well, it was sort of Justin's idea and all. I just translated the old texts he and Ted dug up." Lauren sighed. "Too bad our original idea didn't quite work out as planned. We would have made a fortune, not that things didn't work out in the end."
"And what 'original idea' would that be?"
"We turned some old bridge into a transformation machine. People like you would have paid a fortune to be transformed. Unfortunately we couldn't find a way to disable the effect, we didn't count upon the creation of mythics and the transformational effects upon animals and non-customers."
"Non-customers? You mean like fallout from a nuke, or radiation from a slug of uranium?"
"More like people just innocently passing over the bridge. Things got out of hand and the next thing we knew, the government was moving in to take over."
"Tell me about it. There's an Executive Order forbidding me from ever giving blood."
"Well, things went better with our next venture, although apparently in an alternate timeline Justin pissed off some powerful Dragon in another reality and he came to earth and turned the whole planet into mindless animals."
"Hold it!" Quentin interrupted, visibly disturbed. "You're telling me that Justin wiped out an entire sentient species... and you think that's an example of 'things going better'?"
"Well yeah. Justin's alternate self sent his memories back in time so the disaster was prevented. In fact we made a tidy little profit..."
"Profit! How in God's name could you even think of personal benefit --"
"That was the whole point to begin with, to fleece transformation fanatics out of their money. Hey, as a side affect we were able to use Justin's alternate memories to derive the plans for the phaser and the magic disruptor. You see, although the government captured the bridge they never figured out it was us who used the magic or how the magic worked. There is a fortune to be made in black market transformations, and a girl just has to keep in style, even if she is a Phoenix. Say -- are you alright, Quentin? You look kind of --"
"No. Don't say anything more. I don't want to know anything more about your past adventures."
By this point, Quentin was horrified beyond words at the sheer, awful, blatant inhumanity of this creature before him. That last set of revelations from Lauren just reinforced his idea that Justin, Lauren and Ted were bad fucking news of the most isotopically pure form.
"Hush," Quentin hissed, "I don't want to hear it. Just stay away from me."
Quentin got out of the tub and edged towards the door.
"I said hush!"
With that he flung the door open and boldly walked out in the suite.
Justin turned his head from the pay-per-view porn movie on TV and put down his glass of Champagne to face Quentin.
"What's wrong with you, guy? If I'd just spent 20 minutes alone with Lauren, I sure wouldn't look like death warmed over!"
"Lauren... told me that you, Justin... are responsible for wiping out... the entire sentient population... of an alternate Earth. Is this information correct?"
"No," said Ted flatly.
"No?" asked Quentin, looking over at Ted.
"No," said Ted again. "Those events never occurred. Now, if you want to know if Justin received a bunch of memories that portrayed the events you are interested in as having taken place, then the answer is yes. However, we cannot to a certainty prove the validity of those so-called memories and even if they were true the events contained within never happened, as we made sure to avoid that scenario by taking corrective action at our then current location in time and was able to avoid the impending catastrophe. So, I state again that the answer to the question you posed is 'No'."
Quentin stared at Ted for a moment, then outright glared at him.
"If those memories weren't valid, you couldn't have used them to 'avoid the impending catastrophe'. And if you fucking moronic irresponsible assholes hadn't created the 'impending catastrophe' in the first place -- rrowwwwrrr!" said Quentin as he let off as pissed-off a growl as you're ever likely to hear out of a hundred-kilo cheetah.
"Hey, cut us some slack," said Justin. "don't forget that we did end up saving the world. All three of us in the alternate timeline gave out lives as well. That had bloody well count for something."
Quentin whipped around to glare at Justin.
"You're still a bunch of idiots playing with power you don't have a fucking clue about, and it's just blind luck that your timeline's version of you had a different timeline's version of you to pull your asses out of the fire!"
Quentin stomped over the pulled the TV's power cord out of the wall socket.
"Hey, I was watching that," protested Justin.
"And now you're not. What's your point?" replied Quentin in a detached tone of voice.
Quentin then walked over to the phone and picked it up.
"Hello, room service? This is Quentin Long in suite 2024... yes, that's the one. Yes I would just like to know what items have been ordered for this room... yes... yes... I see... ok... ok... well then I want you... what do you mean that was just page one!"
Quentin growled at his self-appointed 'guests' again, then turned back to the receiver.
"Just cancel everything... uh huh... yes I see, but... my point is... ice sculpture! How on Earth... I know he was woken up special... Fine. Just cancel everything that can be canceled."
Quentin slammed down the receiver and glared down at Justin.
"I don't know about where you bozoes come from, but in my culture, the words 'host' and 'doormat' are not synonymous. So in future, I shall thank you very kindly to not walk all over me like I was a doormat. Got that?"
A flying cork hit Quentin in the side of his fuzzy little head.
"Champagne anyone?" asked Ted.
"That's ok," said Justin," I have my own bottle."
The oh so suave red Dragon proceeded to take a nice long chug.
"Gimme that," spouted Quentin, pawing at the bottle that was held fast by Justin's powerful grasp.
While Quentin was fighting to get the exceedingly expensive bottle of Champagne away from Justin, he noticed that Ted was looking over a particular black, silver and green trimmed medieval looking outfit from his travel suitcase. Quentin loosened Justin's grip with a swift karate chop to his wrists with one hand while at the same time his other hand sent the bottle flying upwards.
"Do you mind leaving my personal luggage alone?" yelled the cheetah man, effortlessly plucking the bottle out of mid air. "Christ! I know 5-year-old children who've got more responsibility and maturity than you jerks!"
"Where do you get these clothes?" asked Ted. "There's just something about them. Almost as if they were some sort of ancient artifact that is calling to me."
Quentin calmly corked the bottle, tucked it under his arm, quickstepped over to Ted and then proceeded to attempt to wrench it out of his hands.
"My wardrobe is not ::strain:: some sort of magical ::growl:: artifact. You know ::grunt:: this is a non-magical world. Stop ::pant:: being silly."
The case finally came free sending its contents all over the room.
"I could care less what kinds of hallucinations you're suffering. You want to rummage through somebody else's things, you can damn well ask first!"
Quentin began to gather up the various bits of his garments, but not before he saw Justin holding up one of the black leather boots.
"I think Ted is right, there is most definitely something odd about this costume here," said Justin taking a deep whiff. "What the hell do you use this thing for anyway?"
"It's a costume I found one day at an MGM props department clearance sale, if you must know. I use it for my roles as Lord Cubist and just because it never gets worn, damaged, dirty or wrinkled most definitely does not mean it is magical," said Quentin, gathering up the free pieces of his costume.
"Whatever," said Justin, handing over the boot.
Quentin quickly gathered up the tunic, breeches, boots, cloak, leggings, arm bands, necklace and one giant-ruby-containing headband, and stuffed them back into his travel bag. He then opened the bathroom door in order to find a storage place farther away from curious fingers.
"Well hello big boy, I see you have changed your mind," said Lauren head as it poked out of the suds floating on her bathwater.
Quentin was assaulted by a tidal wave of exotic aromas and spices. The bathroom was dark except for the 100 or so scented bath candles. Lauren sat in the tub, quietly sipping Champagne and scooping large quantities of caviar into her now human mouth. He stopped dead in his tracks, glared for a moment, took a deep breath and visibly calmed himself.
"Of course. I've fallen through the looking glass into an Italian screwball comedy," he said. "Lauren, where did you get all this stuff? Who lit those candles, and what is that overpowering smell?"
"You mean my saffron body wash? Oh, I just ordered a bath before I came up to your room. The hotel bath staff came in from the lounge while you were out talking to Justin and Ted," she said, gesturing at the other door. "It's simply amazing what this hotel has in stock. I guess you don't get 6 stars for nothing. They even had pet care products for large tropical birds. Can you believe it? I ordered about 15 sets."
She pointed to a second pile of bottles, brushes and soaps in the corner of the room.
"And after I get done washing my human form I'll go right into phase II. Good thing Phoenixes do not require much sleep. This bath could last well into the morning."
Quentin closed his eyes and winced slightly, then looked at her with such a sincere smile that anyone with two active brain cells could tell it was utterly phony. He raised one hand in a placating gesture, palm towards the wet little firebird.
"Sorry to have disturbed you, Miss," he said and promptly left the bathroom, luggage in hand and closing the door behind him.
Back in the main room, Quentin bestowed the smile on Justin and Ted who exchanged uncomfortable glances with each other.
"Well, boys. Got any other surprises up your sleeves? Anything more to add interest to an otherwise boring day?" Quentin exclaimed in a perky voice that was reminiscent of what a postal worker sounds like just before he cracks and goes on a 3-state killing spree.
"What counts as a surprise?" asked Ted.
"Oh, anything out of the ordinary. A fragment of the True Cross; a copy of the Zimmerman Telegraph; the Stone of Scone; a relative from the Old Country who might drop in unexpectedly; anything you haven't mentioned yet."
"Well there's Max," said Ted, "but I don't really think he counts as he doesn't usually hang out with us, so you won't run into him and thus experience no new surprises."
"Max. And dare I ask who or what this 'Max' is?"
"He's just some character we picked in that 'passing fad' world as you call it," answered Justin. "Nothing to worry about."
"And exactly why did you 'pick him up'? You three don't exactly strike me as being the kind to commit acts of senseless charity, so what did he do for you?"
"He offered to protect us in exchange for us exposing him to opportunities not present on his hellhole planet," said Justin.
Quentin gave Justin a narrow-eyed, suspicious look.
"He offered to protect you, a pair of omnipotent Dragons and an omnipotent Phoenix? Okay, what is this thing you call Max?"
"Well, he refers to himself as an 'Atomic Dragon'," said Ted. "I think he was a human that got merged with a missile or something."
"I actually think you'd like him," remarked Justin. "You see the big event where all the cars and whatnot turned into organics basically screwed his planet. Everyone is starving or dying or being used by mythic creatures as slaves. Max needed us to help him get a supply of energy so that he and his followers can defeat the evil Atomic Dragons and help re-stabilize Earth."
"Atomic... Dragon. Who needs... a supply of energy."
After parsing the statement for a moment, Quentin quickly decided he doesn't like the implications of it one bit.
"And... this energy... wouldn't happen to be... in the form of weapons-grade uranium or plutonium..?"
"Lauren was right, you are a sharp cookie," said Ted.
"I see where this is going," said Justin. "You're going to use this as an excuse to worry more. Well, don't. Max is only going to get this material from rogue nations in Asia or the Middle East. At least that's what he told us and he has no real reason to lie. In fact, you should be thanking him for making your world a safer place."
"Let me get this straight," began Quentin. "There's a monster. Stealing material that, by its very nature, is exceptionally militarily sensitive. Stealing it from the most geopolitically unstable trouble spots on the face of the planet."
There was a short, uncomfortable pause.
"But I should ignore the fact that stealing nuclear warheads is exactly the sort of thing that's guaranteed to send any nation's military establishment into Hyper-Red Alert. I should just go blithely on my merry way, never mind that Max's little shopping tour is tailor-made to incite anti-Changeling sentiment on a global basis and --"
The next part was screamed at the top of Quentin's ample Cheetah lungs.
"Trigger World War Three!!!!"
"Damnit," said Justin, "you're getting all upset. I told you not to get upset. Just calm down and have some Champagne."
Quentin, dumbfounded by Justin's nonchalant attitude, closed his eyes, took a deep breath, exhaled, and generally calmed himself by a visible, dramatic effort.
"Thank you, but no," he said happily. "I'm going to take a walk now. See you later -- maybe."
And with that he headed for the door.
"Aw come on," cried Justin, "you're missing a great time."
Quentin gave no reply.
After stumbling down stairs to the lobby Quentin barely had enough wherewithal to stop by the front desk and suspend all forms of orderable services coming from his hotel room before he pushed his way out through the revolving doors and into the cold night. There was a light snow falling and the icy wind ruffled the yellow and black spotted fur that wasn't covered by his minimal clothing. New York may be the city that never sleeps, but on this cold night it was definitely napping. The world famous cheetah morph set about a random walk as his mind raced circles within his furry little head. Quentin passed through such famous locations as Times Square, the Empire State Building and the Port Authority Bus Terminal like a ghost drifting through a graveyard. Finally, somewhere within the sprawling Times Square subway station, Quentin finally got himself under control and he found it was time to tackle the tough question of what exactly he should do with these three trans-dimensional fuck-ups.
His first and most important goal was to get said fuck-ups and their little nuke-stealing pet Dragon off of his home planet ASAP. He figured his second goal was to be sure that the trio did not cause any lasting effects. Ted's handing out of so-called 'magical' amulets to the Dragons and Lauren's supposed gift of letting him ignore the law of conservation of mass were both definitely going to require some investigation. Quentin paused and stared first at his own hands and then at the small subway concourse he was walking in. Tempted as he was this was most definitely not the place to go around testing just exactly how large he could now make himself.
The third goal was perhaps the most pressing. Quentin needed to somehow quell the International Crisis that was sure to be brewing out of control at that very moment. It was a bank of pay phones that grabbed Quentin's attention. He suddenly realized that he hadn't told the front desk to disable his long distance phone service. He started to curse his stupidity, before realizing that the trio wouldn't have any reason whatsoever to call anybody. That aside, Quentin soon made the subtle connection between a telephone, long distance phone charges, his military contacts in Washington and avoiding World War III. Quentin pulled out his cell phone, enabled the secure connection and began to dial in a race against Armageddon. He hadn't gotten much past 1-202 when sample conversations began to run through his head.
Quentin: "Hello, General? Yeah, there's this nuclear-powered Dragon from another dimension who is here to steal warheads, 'cause he needs them for food and they're getting kind of hard to find back home. But don't worry, he's not going to touch the US or anybody important -- just piss-ant shitholes like Korea and Pakistan. At least that's what he said."
Important General just woken up at 3 AM: What?!! A Dragon? Huh! Quentin... what... are... um. Yeeeess. Sure. I'll get right on it. Um... why don't you tell me where you are? You seem to have some very... important... information and we would... naturally need to debrief you as soon as possible. ::slowly:: Just stay by the phone and we'll pick you up. Just stay calm and everything will turn out all right."
As visions of men in white suits chasing him around midtown with butterfly nets danced in Quentin's head, he slowly hung up the phone. Getting hauled off to the loony bin aside, he realized that he would have to get more solid information about the activities of these visitors before his call even had a chance of being taken seriously. His temperament cooled, his mind cleared, Quentin began to walk briskly back to his hotel.
Quentin reached the hotel and was surprised not to find emergency vehicles sitting outside. He walked into the lobby and was surprised to not have staff running up to him to inform about the actions of his 'friends'. He stepped out of the elevator and was surprised to find the hall not filled with smoke or noxious odors. He walked in the door and saw that his Lord Cubist costume was still safely stowed in his overnight bag, nothing was on fire, nothing new had been delivered, the windows were intact, the TV was off, the walls and carpet were blood free, Lauren was in her nest, her beak safely tucked under her wing and Justin and Ted were laughing about something in the next room. After examining that last observation for negative implications Quentin's heart sank. He burst through the door dreading what he might find.
"Try another one," said Justin.
Ted dialed a 10-digit number and waited.
"Hello sir, I am from the National Sleep institute and I was just calling to see if you had been sleeping."
He then held the earpiece away from his head to both protect his hearing and to let Justin in on the action. After a few minutes of silence they broke into hysterical laughter before slamming the receiver down.
"So that's 543 yes and 13 no," proclaimed Justin. "Who'd have thought so many people would be lazing around at 4 am. Oh... hi, Quentin. Back from your walk I see."
"I am. How silly of me, thinking that just because you've never been to this reality, you wouldn't have any reason to make international calls."
Quentin moved over, yanked the phone from Ted's grasp, dialed the front desk and canceled all long distance phone service for his room.
"Now if you don't mind, I need to get some sleep."
And with that Quentin turned and stormed out of the room.
Cubist was dozing in bed. It was so warm and cozy there under the soft down filled covers that the concerns and worries of the previous day just seemed to melt away. However, the light seeping in through the drawn curtains was sending the urgent message that it was time to get up and not even the great Lord Cubist could argue with that. He opened his eyes to see a great orange beak lying next to his head, a steady flow of drool slowly saturating the pillow. Quentin watched in amazement, the sweet smell of honeysuckle wafting through his nostrils, as the puddle of drool vigorously attacked a wine stain, courtesy of Justin and Ted the night before.
"Oh great," muttered Quentin, looking over the sleeping form on top of him. "Hm. Surprised she hasn't bottled that and put Proctor & Gamble out of business," he remarked, noticing the drool.
Doing his best to let sleeping phoenixes lay, Quentin attempted to squirm his way free, but he soon found himself staring into the pupilless yellow eye of the feathery freeloader in his bed.
"Oh, I am sorry Quentin. I didn't mean to disturb you."
"Actually, that should be my line -- I didn't want to wake you."
"Thank you, that was sweet. I hop you didn't mind my presence, I just felt bad about the awkwardness of our previous 'encounter' and I just wanted to make it up to you with a little bed warming present."
"Thanks. Nobody got hurt... did they?"
"Of course not silly. Don't you remember?"
"No. Not all of it," said Quentin seriously, with a dash of well-hidden fear.
"Well the last thing I wanted to do was make you uncomfortable."
Lauren then turned her beak away and faced the wall.
"You know, I was trying to make up for what I did to you on the subway. Every fiber of my being is always yelling 'heal heal, love, care, fix' and when an opportunity comes along the urge to jump in is so strong I can barely resist it. I really do try my best, but I guess I'm just not experienced enough at this whole 'being a Phoenix' thing so things usually don't turn out right. Even when I try to make up for my failures, I fail."
Hearing this, Quentin got a very strong feeling of deja vu; Lauren could just as well have been any of hundreds of Changelings whose still-human minds couldn't cope with their newly inhuman bodies. It was a classic case of body/mind mismatch. It was at this point that Quentin realized he couldn't just let Lauren go on without at least trying to help her, just as he'd helped that 'teddy bear', and so many other Changelings.
"You know, Lauren... this is beginning to sound awfully familiar to me. You've acquired a new body, but your mind hasn't quite caught up to it, and so it's no wonder you're having problems. If you'll allow me to try my own flavor of mindlink again, I'll do whatever I can to assist you in dealing with your situation. May I?"
"Well," said Lauren, answering a bit sheepishly, "I have had this body for nearly 8 years. I would think I'd have gotten used to it by now, but I don't see how your offer could hurt."
"Alright. Get yourself comfortable, and I'll give it another shot. With what I learned from the first try, I think I'll be able to make good contact with your 'inner Phoenix'..."
"I'll instruct it not to react hostilely to your intrusion," said Lauren. "Hopefully that will work."
"Thanks. And I'll try some stuff on my end, as well."
Quentin once again put his hands to Lauren's head and slowly extended tendrils of his own central nervous system into her brain. His eyes fluttered shut and once again he was floating in the infinite gray plane in front of the endless wall. Slowly approaching the door, this time Quentin didn't just barge in, but instead sent a polite inquiry. In Lauren's mental world of symbolism he was sure to assemble a courteous and respectful symbol. In Quentin's ethereal hands appeared a genuine lambskin parchment, and a message appeared on it. The headline was in the ornate Blackletter typeface, the body of the message in the Copperplate font. It read:
with the Phoenix Spirit
IF IT PLEASE YOU, I, AN UNWORTHY SOUL WHO IS KNOWN AS QUENTIN, WOULD LIKE TO ARRANGE A MEETING BETWEEN YOURSELF AND THE HUMAN SPIRIT KNOWN AS LAUREN WHICH SHARES THE BODY YOU INHABIT. SADLY, MY ABILITIES ARE NOT STRONG ENOUGH FOR ME TO DO THIS AND REMAIN UNINVOLVED MYSELF; I MUST ACT AS A CONDUIT. PLEASE, MAY I DO THIS THING, FOR THE BENEFIT OF YOURSELF AND FOR THE BENEFIT OF LAUREN?
Quentin rolled the parchment up and sent the scroll through the doorway and into the realm beyond. After a moment the door creaked and slowly opened. Quentin 'stepped' through the door, keeping his awareness finely tuned so as not to miss any details. As soon as he crossed the plane of the doorway, and before he had a chance to blink, Quentin once again found himself bathed in burning hot fire. This time, however, the fire subsided and seemed to solidify into a solid ball. The ball flew around and around Quentin before coming to a halt about five feet away, at eye level.
"Squawk!" said the eagle-sized bird now hovering before Quentin.
The bird was like a miniature replica of Lauren, but despite its rather large (for a bird) size, it was painfully obvious that the creature was definitely a juvenile -- possibly even a fledgling. Quentin blinked in surprise.
"So... you are the Phoenix Spirit?"
"Chirp," the Phoenix replied as Quentin began to feel a warm glow inside of him.
"Chirp," he repeated back at it. "You can't speak, can you?"
Quentin watched as the bird just hovered there blinking. Somewhere in the back of his head he heard something singing and the general feeling of goodness and joy began to permeate his being. He reached out towards it with both hands, moving slowly and smoothly, not indicating an attack in any way. He felt the symbolic action of a mind meld would allow him some direct access to what he believed was a disembodied part of Lauren's persona.
"Alright, Phoenix, I'm going to try to open up a more direct communications channel here," said Quentin, making an effort to keep up a running commentary to ease any residual fears the little Phoenix might have.
"I just want to touch your head, like this, and..."
Quentin's fingertips made contact and his mind suddenly felt as if it had been blasted by a shotgun. What had been a faint harmony in the back of his head was now a deafening roar and as it was being piped directly into his sensorium there was no possibly way for him to blot it out. For a second Quentin tried to concentrate on the melody, to try and understand its meaning, its purpose. The result was like trying to pee in the corner of a round room, as soon as a piece of the puzzle seemed within reach it would squish away like a greased pig. Quentin began to feel his sanity slipping away and quickly responded by instinctively yanking his mind back from the enigmatic tune. Once free from its clutches Quentin was again bowled over by a second sensation. One of intense reverence, peace and, dare he say it, divinity. Feelings popularly thought to be associated with holy places or people.
Baffled, Quentin 'stood' there for a while, calming himself back down after the most recent in a long string of weird episodes. For him, the most logical next move was to get in touch with Lauren, and in this mental/psychological realm, the most rational way to accomplish that was to construct a symbolic laptop on which he brought up a symbolic e-mail programme with which he sent a symbolic e-mail message.
"Hi there! I think I've made contact with your Phoenix Spirit. Click HERE to be sent to where we both are."
A second or so later an image of Lauren blurred into existence.
"Hey Quentin," she said looking around. "Now just where the hell am I?"
"You're asking me? You live here -- I'm just a tourist. Anyway, this would seem to be the Phoenix Spirit you've mentioned. I think you two might have a lot to talk about," he said, gesturing at the birdie.
Lauren looked over at the Phoenix and the Phoenix looked back. Without any communication between them, the Phoenix glided over, flew right into her chest and then emerged from her shoulder to perch there.
"So," said Lauren, still looking at Quentin, "we've met before. I see her in my dreams."
"Well, now that you're awake, maybe you and, um, she, can get to know each other better, okay? I'll just leave you two alone to get better acquainted, okay? Bye for now!"
Lauren turned to her inner spirit and source of power.
"He's an odd one isn't he?"
The Phoenix chortled in agreement, nodding its bright orange beak up and down.
Quentin disappeared from the scene, off to find Lauren's 'memory bank' or some functional equivalent. The 'holy' feeling he had received upon touching that so-called Phoenix Spirit had put the spark of curiosity into him and he just had to track down its source. He soon found Lauren's memories and an exhaustive scan revealed nothing in her knowledge that could explain or even acknowledge the existence of such a feeling (although he did happen to view a couple snippets of their previous day's encounter in the Skybox). Whatever had happened, it was most definitely not coming from Lauren! Quentin began to feel uneasy. He had definitely felt something; there was no doubt about it. Therefore there must be some logical explanation for it. If it wasn't coming from Lauren then it must be coming from some outside source and the two most obvious culprits were Justin and Ted. As Quentin made his way through Lauren's mind to her sensory input center he could not fathom why on Earth Justin and Ted would expend so much effort to play such a pointless little prank. On the other hand, Quentin had learned well over the last day that they did many things for reasons incomprehensible to him.
Employing manual overrides, Quentin opened Lauren's eyes and looked around. Her body was still sitting upright in bed, his body within arm's reach of hers. The door was cracked open and the shadows of Justin and Ted could be seen in the next room fighting over what game to play next on the suite's Playstation 5. Still, Quentin was not convinced, tapping into Lauren's more unique abilities, he reached out with her mind, gently probing until eventually coming in contact with Justin. Quentin pushed further and began to hear Justin's thoughts. Sifting through them he ascertained that Justin currently had Ted in a headlock and was trying to figure how just how long it would take for his friend to pass out, thus allowing him to choose the game by default. There were no initial indications that Justin or Ted had anything to do with the strange feelings he had just experienced. Then, without warning, Quentin saw a flash of powerful jaws and his link into Justin's head was cut off.
"Lauren, what did I tell you about messing around in my head?" called in Justin from the next room.
"Sorry about that -- just checking something!" said Quentin through Lauren.
Justin didn't reply as he fought to quash Ted's reversal.
Quentin then tried to tap into Ted's mind, but he found that Ted had encrypted his thoughts. He would have tried to somehow crack the code, but the connection timed out as Ted lapsed into unconsciousness.
Well, thought Quentin to himself, if what I got from Justin's mind is accurate, Ted was much too busy getting throttled to do anything to me and/or Lauren during the relevant period of time. That leaves only one possibility... the problem must lie in my own mind.
Quentin then sent himself back to where he started, the gray plane where Lauren sat playing cards with her inner Phoenix as she waited.
"Hey, you're back. Did you find anything?"
Once again Quentin found himself confronted with the holy/sacred feeling.
"Well... not sure about that. Could you scan my brain and body? I think I want a second opinion on something."
"A second opinion on what?"
"Whether or not the neural machinery is in top working order."
"Ok, sure, I guess I could do that. Don't know why you think they would not be though."
"Fine. Just humor me, okay?"
"Um, how do you want me to do this?"
"Diagnosis -- 'look but don't touch', as it were."
"What am I looking for?"
"Like I said, I want you to check me for neural screw-ups."
"There are many different types of screw ups, anything specific?"
"Sorry, can't really help you there. I just want a second opinion as to whether or not I might be going nuts, is all."
Lauren sighed. "You got it."
Lauren went over to Quentin and placed a hand on his forehead. He then watched as the small Phoenix bird dove into her body becoming a dull orange nimbus shining through her clothing. The glow worked its way up her body, down her arm, into her hand and into Quentin's head. Quentin felt a rush as his memories flashed through his sensorium with rapid-fire speed. He began to feel dizzy as the Phoenix began to stimulate various emotions, then combinations of emotions, then combinations of emotions in conjunction with various memories. Suddenly everything stopped and the orange ball of energy withdrew from his head. Lauren sat there for a second with her eyes closed, contemplating something before a computer printout appeared in her hand.
"All done, would you like to see the results?"
"Ah... sure thing."
Lauren handed Quentin the piece of paper.
"As you can see you are repressing quite a few memories, which puts you at risk for a midlife burnout and/or various forms of depression or dementia. Your neural structure has seen some degradation due to extreme incidents of pain, which puts you at risk for some later life degenerative disorders. Actually, you should have residual damage owing to the pain incidents, but I don't see any sign of it... Um, and lastly you need to get more sleep. Other than that you are perfectly fine."
"So there's nothing that could result in hallucinations right now."
"Nothing that I could find," said Lauren.
By this point, Quentin was really starting to worry. By his logic, what had just happened there ought to be just plain impossible. It was a complete violation of his entire worldview, thoroughly materialistic with no belief in souls or magic or anything of that kind, yet there he was with a phenomenon which just didn't fit at all. Quentin, non-religious as he was, had found himself in a crisis of faith and due to his intimate mental connection with Lauren, his distress was plainly visible.
"What's wrong Quentin, you seem to be having some sort of crisis."
Quentin materialized a chair to collapse back into.
"Tell me what is bothering you Quentin, maybe I can help."
"No. You can't. It's, it's a strictly personal thing, I have to, have to work it out myself," the cheetah-morph said, noticing Lauren once again.
"Maybe my little Phoenix here can give you nice going over?"
Quentin seriously considered it, but no matter how enticing it seemed, he just couldn't bring himself to accept it. It was a psychological impossibility.
"No. Thank you... but no," he simply replied.
"Well then," said Lauren, "I guess your work here is done."
And with a fiery flash Quentin found himself back in his own point of view, small wisps of smoke rising from his now feathered hands. He vacantly got up and headed for the bathroom pulling out bits of carpet with his talons.
""My god, it is real... I do believe in Phoenixes..."
Then he started to sing.
"We must believe in Magic... We must believe in the guiding hand..."
Lauren looked on as she shifted back to human form.
"My he is an odd one isn't he."
Her inner Phoenix silently cooed in agreement.
Quentin had just finished picking the majority of feathers out of his fur when Justin burst through the washroom door.
"Hey, jungle cat, it's 10:30. We gotta get our asses back down to the convention. They're going to clear breakfast away."
"Hmm? Oh... right... go ahead. I'm not hungry."
"I wasn't asking."
"Come on, get dressed."
So saying, Justin grabbed Quentin's little anthropomorphic paw and pulled him out of the bathroom.
"Bwaaaah!" Quentin exclaimed in surprise. "Um, right. Let me change into something less comfortable."
He shifted into something best described as mostly-human-with-various-avian-bits while at the same time gathering up his clothes from Lauren's nest.
"She really must have given it to him yesterday, didn't she?" remarked Ted, hitting Justin in the ribs with his elbow.
"A whole new world," Quentin remarked absently.
When Quentin was ready Justin pushed him out the door to find Lauren, dressed and waiting in the hall, currently occupied with trying to get the flowers in a decorative vase to un-wilt.
"Hey everyone... waaagh!" she jumped as her gaze shifted to Quentin's somewhat avian form.
"I think you put the zap on his mind," Ted whispered audibly.
"Weren't those plastic?" asked Justin, sniffing one of the peach colored roses in the vase.
The look on Lauren's face seemed to indicate that this little tidbit of relevant information just explained a great deal. Quentin turned to Lauren.
"Breakfast for you, while I schmooze, I guess. You up for it?"
"Um, I would love to."
The elevator arrived with a ding and the motley group stepped inside.
"Ah, I like your, um, new feathers," she complimented uneasily, trying to sidestep Quentin's obvious mental instability.
"Hey Quentin," asked Ted, seizing the opportunity, "am I to get it right that your symbiotes not only provide you with shapeshifting power, but with virtual indestructibility and immunity to all known diseases?"
Quentin blinked at Ted.
"No," he stated flatly followed by a long pause. "There's also an upgrade to the ribosomes. And I'm not really immune to disease, so much as I can change to a different species that isn't affected by whatever pathogen."
"Even better. So, if one was interested in, let's say hypothetically, wanting to gain your power, how perchance, might one go about doing it?" Ted followed up.
"Hypothetically, assuming I was willing to participate in the deed, a minor blood transfusion would do the job. Oh, and I'm not indestructible, either. When someone cuts off a limb, I feel it, and it hurts. It hurts a lot."
"Would you be willing to do the job on us?" asked Justin, a glint already present in both eyes.
"What do you care? You're already a shapeshifter, aren't you?" said Quentin, giving Justin a confused look.
"Well... they might... uh, be able to, um, enhance the abilities of shapeshifters everywhere."
"The answer is no. You need to ask the next question. Are we there yet?"
Ted reached over and pushed the emergency stop button.
"Look over there," said Justin directing Quentin's attention toward a piece of modern art on the elevator wall.
With Quentin temporarily mesmerized and Lauren blocking the pain, Ted produced a needle and several vials and softly taking a hold of Quentin's arm he began to draw blood. Three minutes later the elevator arrived at its destination and Ted had 6 vials of blood tucked safely away under his clothes.
"We'll get there when we leave the hotel and cross the street," said Lauren, finally answering his last question.
"Ah," said Quentin.
After a bit of time he stopped and frowned.
"You complimented me on my feathers, didn't you?"
He gingerly plucked one out of his scalp, looked at it and sighed.
"Damn. I gotta pull myself together."
"I think you're operating a conversation topic or two behind the rest of us," said Lauren.
"Yeah. Thank God it's only breakfast."
He extracted a hand mirror from his pocket and looked himself over, noting all the newly avian features.
"Hooo-boy," he continued, looking at Lauren. "Is this sort of thing normal after a close encounter with a Phoenix?"
"I've never had this sort of problem before. Then again I haven't met any other shapeshifters before."
"Besides your draconic friends, you mean?" he replied, smiling.
"Go to Hell you bastard!" yelled Justin at a car that had nearly hit him as they crossed 9th Ave. "Whoops, sorry. I think we should use that entrance there."
"Yeah... okay," said Quentin who started shifting to a more fully birdlike form, figuring that feathers would provide less of a shedding problem than fur.
They entered the former sports arena and almost at once Ted was caught in the viselike embrace of a big muscular gentleman with long silver hair.
"Oh Justin and Ted, how can I ever repay you for giving my life back to both me and my future mate. It is just so wonderful! I can fit in buildings, I can eat in restaurants, I can fit in passenger vehicles, I can use mass transit! Oh Justin and Ted, I am in your debt. Everything I own is yours."
"I'll settle for you allowing me to be able to breathe again," gasped Ted.
"Consider it done," said the now human Dragon who promptly let him go. "You know, my mate and I spent all last night turning into all the different forms we could think of and copulating. It was most enjoyable and I have you to thank for bringing us together."
"I don't think we needed to know that," said Justin.
"Oh wait, I am getting one of those mental communications from her now. All these new draconic powers are a tad overwhelming."
The Silver Dragon paused while he received the transmission, a large carnivore's grin slowly spreading across his currently human face.
"If you would excuse me, there is something rather 'urgent' I need to attend to."
His shape blurred for a second and a silver-scaled draco-taur padded off into one of the tunnels.
"Alright, who was that? I don't recognize him..." asked Quentin, somewhat confused.
"That was that Silver Dragon guy," replied Justin, "I think his name was Mike. Ted fitted him out with a necklace that activated his innate magical powers."
"Wait a second. You said the only reason magic works in this world at all is that you're siphoning it off of some other timeline -- and earlier, you said that grabbing magic from another timeline caused a global holocaust?"
"We're siphoning it from our own reality," said Ted, "there's no problem that way."
"And you know it's safe, because you've done it before and stuck around long enough to see the downstream effects."
"We're not taking it from an undefined source like before. This is different. Stop worrying," responded Ted.
Quentin was about to object to this explanation when the killer whale morph interrupted them.
"Justin, I just wanted to thank you for helping me with my taxes. I never realized I had so many business expenses before."
"Yeah, they can surprise you," said Justin. "I am always glad to help the tax law work for people instead of the other way round."
"Um, Justin," queried Quentin, "are you familiar with the tax laws of this reality? And do you know that Mr. Vaillancourt here is also Canadian?"
"I'm not an idiot," whispered Justin. "I had him fill out a Simplified 1040 for the North American Joint Tax Zone."
Quentin's eyebrows were about the fly off his forehead when another satisfied customer ran up to shower the three travelers with praise.
"Ted, I just wanted to thank you for smoking my ham," said a rather no-nonsense Centaur.
"No problem. I told you, there is no limit to what a cardboard box and some wadded up magazines can do."
"Wait a second," interrupted Quentin, "you smoked meat over burning magazines? Aren't there all sorts of nasty chemicals in the clay coating and the ink pigments and God knows what else is used in manufacturing glossy paper?"
"Well I haven't heard anything like that," said Ted dismissively.
"Jesus... at least the major papermakers are using less-toxic whiteners these days..." Quentin mumbled under his breath in an effort to reassure himself before being interrupted once more.
"And I have something to thank Lauren for," pronounced an excited wolf morph giving a little twirl to show herself off. "I never knew that a fluorescent purple paisley tunic went so well with neon yellow and orange swirl pants!"
"Oh, but it does! And the acetylene blue scarf is really the crowning touch. If being a Phoenix has taught me anything it's that you can never go wrong with vibrant. I'm glad you appreciated my advice Raven, you're like the sister I never call."
The wolf oddly known as Raven met Lauren with a fuzzy warm embrace.
"Thanks to you I am going to set the town on fire tonight."
"Welcome to my world," said Lauren.
They both broke out in giggles.
"Three cheers for Justin, Lauren and Ted," someone in the crowd proposed.
"Purple... orange... neon... yellow... swirl... paisley!" stammered Quentin, as he rapidly lost touch with reality. "Three cheers???!!!!"
As if the words were not enough, the harsh image before him was captured by his retina and sent spinning around inside his mind. It was simply too much, the assault against good taste drove Quentin to the breaking point and beyond. The sound of his mind snapping was clearly audible to the Dragons and canine derivatives around him.
Silence hit the room like a door slamming shut and 500 pairs of eyes focused on the humanoid shapeshifting cheetah.
"Have you all gone crazy? Don't you see!? These aren't heroes -- they're madmen! We shouldn't be giving them cheers, we should be giving them straight jackets!"
He stormed over toward Raven Blackmane, the wolf Lauren had helped coordinate.
"You're ugly. Lauren hasn't made you stylish, she's turned you into an abomination! The only thing that deserves to be set on fire is this outfit!"
He then turned to Chris Duriak, the Centaur.
"I hate to break it to you, but that ham of yours is carcinogenic!"
He then turned to Shawn Vaillancourt, the killer whale morph.
"That tax return is going to get you thrown in jail... if you're lucky!"
Finally he set his gaze upon Mike Brotzman, the Silver Dragon, and the large magical pendant around his long reptilian neck.
"And that little 'magical' toy you have there... yeah, that one there... is going to kill us all! Ha! I'll bet they didn't tell you about that part, now did they."
Quentin turned to go run amok somewhere else, but paused to assure himself the last word.
"If I were you, instead of partying with these insane clowns I would stuff them in an ash can and roll them into the deepest part of the Pacific Ocean. But hey, it's only our planet that's in danger."
And with a peal of insane laughter, Quentin Long left the arena.
"He's been under a lot of stress lately," said the now gallop-enabled Centaur, Michael Bard, as he handed Lauren a gift basket that was taller than she was.
The other participants nodded in agreement, although there were more than a few nervous glances exchanged between them.
After making a few circuits of the outer mezzanine Quentin finally calmed himself down enough to reenter the arena. As bad as things were, Quentin had convinced himself that losing it would definitely not help matters any. He slinked in through one of the entrance tunnels, plopped down in a folding chair set up around a TV as part of a 'media viewing' circle and, not knowing what else was on, clicked the channel over to CNN. Quentin sighed as he continued to witness the various reunion participants fawning over the three visiting psychopaths. On a positive note, Shawn the killer whale seemed to comparing his tax return with a phone-book-sized tax law handbook and Raven had covered herself in a black trench coat.
"...and the dog was ok. Coming up in financial news, noise trading, the next big thing for investors."
Ahhh, thought Quentin to himself, nothing like the news to give the worried mind a much needed rest.
"But first, a miracle hand and nail treatment that doctors say... wait, hold on... I'm getting something here... yes... yes... Ladies and Gentlemen, this just in, a state of emergency has just been declared in the state of California."
Quentin immediately fell out of his folding chair, his heart racing. This was it, the jig was up, someone had finally noticed a giant nuke-stealing lizard was flying around and causing general havoc. Glancing at his watch he estimated that it would be about 50 minutes until global nuclear annihilation.
"Early reports are sketchy, but it appears that Britney Spears is running amok in downtown Los Angeles zapping innocent bystanders with some sort of pleasure-inducing ray. Apparently, while undergoing brain patterning for her role in the upcoming remake of White Heat, a malfunction occurred and she broke free of her restraints. Wait, I am getting more news... yes, right this moment she is running loose down Sunset Boulevard, shooting random people with a 'tasp', a gadget which I am being told directly stimulates the pleasure center of the brain, leaving a trail of semi-coherent bystanders in her wake. Where she got such a device is unknown at this time, but Governor Michael J. Fox has declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard. As we all know this is not the first time Ms. Spears has run into trouble with brain patterning. Two years ago while preparing for her role as Blind Pew in Wind in the Willows, a similar accident left the respected actress and former pop sensation speaking in a Cockney accent for nearly seven months. Please stay tuned, we will keep you updated as the story develops."
Quentin breathed a large sigh of relief. It wasn't Justin's, Lauren's and Ted's mysterious friend after all. Just another celebrity rampage caused by a brain patterning mishap. As waves of disgust swept over him due to the tragic farce that was network news, Quentin remembered why he didn't watch TV and promptly switched off the set. As most of the other Changelings were still ogling over the psychos Quentin walked over to the vacant food service counter, walked behind it, and began to fix himself an Irish Coffee. He soon lost himself in the smooth aroma and rich alcoholic effects.
"Quentin, Quentin! Come quick!"
It was the voice of one of the other Changelings that awoke Quentin from his warm morning eye-opener.
"You have to get up and see this. Something's happened, it's on TV."
"Leave me alone, I already know about the Britney Spears thing. It's a shame, it's horrific, brain patterning is evil, they should pass a law, et cetera. Now that I have reacted appropriately may I please go back into my doze?"
"What on Earth are you talking about!? Some monster was stealing nuclear weapons from storage bunkers out west. They say it destroyed an entire National Guard force sent to stop it. Now it's flying towards the east coast."
Quentin's expression turned from sleepy to shocked.
"Oh... bloody... hell..."
Quentin vaulted over the counter and ran toward where the main crowd stood transfixed looking up at the JumboTron.
"...can't tell exactly what it is. This creature, most closely resembling a Dragon, just... it just... vapourized that whole company of tanks. I... I can't describe it... it's just so horrific. Nothing the military is throwing at it seems to have any effect. I can't see much from where I am standing but I think I see... oh... oh my God... Aaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh!" ::BUZZ:: ::CRACKLE:: ::STATIC::
"Jim? Jim are you there?"
"Jim? Jim are you there? Are you there Jim?"
"Ladies and gentleman... it appears... like we... um... just lost correspondent Jim Packard... Anyway, for those just joining us, some being has been attacking US nuclear warhead storage facilities in several western states. The armed forces have declared Hyper Red Alert and the Terrorism Warning Level has been raised to Mauve."
Quentin ground his teeth together and made right for Justin, Lauren and Ted, who were still standing in the middle of the crowd, now staring at the screen with 'Oh fuck, our life just became a huge pile of shit' expressions on their faces. Waving his hands to get their attention, Quentin broke right into his tirade.
"'Only from rogue nations in Asia or the Middle East', you said. 'You worry too much', you said. 'Everything's under control', you said. Does THIS look like it's under control, you fucking submorons!?!?"
"Whoa, hold on a second," protested Justin, "you can't possibly think that we had anything to do with this current development. I mean we barely even know this guy. We can't be held responsible for his actions."
An unnatural calm passed over the cheetah man as he strode over to Justin and laid a paw on his shoulder.
"Don't go there. Don't even think about going there. Don't even try to evade responsibility this time, or I swear to God I will rip your heart out and eat it before your dimming eyes."
"Yuh-Yuh-Yuh-You don't s-scare me. I-I'm a m-magical d-Dragon," dripped Justin, his talons clicking on the flooring.
"Like I give a shit. Just stay out of my way. I got work to do, and I wouldn't trust you clowns to shine my fucking shoes."
"Excuse me," said Ted, trying to be a voice of reason, "let's not talk about blame here. I think that it is in everyone's best interest if we just leave before Justin makes a mess on the floor and get Max to leave before he levels the east coast. Quentin, Quentin's friends, it was really nice knowing you all but we gotta run."
"Knowing when and where to run is an important skill," hissed Lauren.
"Spoken like a true birdbrain who doesn't give a tinker's damn for anything but herself."
"Birdbrain?! Why I oughta... I mean, just chill out Quentin. We'll just leave and everything will be all right. Ted, did you make contact with Max?"
"Yeah, as soon as he gets away from the jet fighters he'll open a portal back."
"See," continued Lauren, "everything will be fine."
Quentin's face went white as he forcibly clamped down on the scathing remark that was on the tip of his tongue.
"For the sake of everyone on this planet, you damn well better hope so."
"Listen, "continued Ted, "we'll just put our food in a doggie bag and leave right now, no harm no foul."
Justin immediately began to shovel the contents of his plate into a plastic hazardous specimen bag he had with him.
"Last call for autographed feathers," called out Lauren, shifting to her full Phoenix form.
Not bothering to disguise or conceal his contempt for his 'guests', Quentin responded.
"Oh, of course. Go ahead, take the whole damn table; it's not like it'll matter 12 hours from now." Then turning to Lauren he continued, "Yep -- that's exactly what a mystical symbol of Life Incarnate should do when a global thermonuclear war is about to happen."
Seemingly to ignore him Justin and Ted shifted back to their natural forms.
"Well it was really nice meeting you all, sorry we have to leave so soon," Justin called to everyone.
"It is a shame our government can't be more understanding," said the now human-looking Silver Dragon.
"You don't see this happening in a civilized country like Canada," said Bard.
"They should have dismantled those damn weapons long ago," cried out Blue Knight.
"Yeah, its our own damn fault this is happening," flashed the plushie on his screen.
There were a few more remarks of agreement and a general optimism that everything would blow over after the trio and their friend went back to their own reality. Needless to say, Quentin did not share this optimism.
"Well goodbye," said Ted, pulling out his device to open the TD gateway.
But just as the portal opened a voice cracked out from the side of the arena.
"Freeze! Hold it right there! FBI!"
Everyone whipped around to see two FBI agents, weapons drawn, directing their comments at the three macro beings in the middle of the arena. However, before Quentin could make a sarcastic remark, Lauren, startled by the agent's order, emitted a squawk vaguely reminiscent of a chicken and proceeded to launch a ball of plasma at the intruders. The crowd could only watch helplessly as the 10,000-degree fire melted the flesh from the agents' bones while they ran around screaming like giant living candles. There was a brief moment of silence while the remains of the agents crumbled down to dust, but immediately afterwards several of the Changelings lost it and began to run screaming to the exits. Acting to disable Lauren as soon as possible, Quentin leapt out, bit her and injected her with some of the most powerful poison in the animal kingdom using his newly shifted venom sacs.
"What the fuck are you doing to me?" shrieked Lauren, smacking Quentin aside and purifying herself.
"Aaaahhhhhh!" cried a wolf morph, running back from the exit. "The whole building is surrounded by police! They started shooting at us when we tried to leave the building!"
"Damn!" said Quentin, turning his attention from the three violent killers and pulling out his cell phone to dial his military contact.
"Hello? Who is this?"
"Quentin Long here. What in God's name is happening, and is there anything I can do to defuse the situation?"
"Ah, Quentin, it took you all this time, but your true stripes finally show through."
"What?" responded Quentin, surprised and shocked.
"Nice try, Changeling. You don't think we haven't been expecting something like this? And right on the anniversary, you must think we're stupid or something."
"So... you think global thermonuclear war is a thing I want to see happen..."
"I don't know what you want to see happen, but we will find out. Our demands are simple Quentin, first tell your monster friend to surrender to the armed forces. Second, surrender yourselves into military custody."
"I'll... see what I can do..."
"See that you do, or we come in shooting."
"Is... is this number okay to call... or some other..?"
All he got in response was a dull click. Quentin numbly hung up the phone and stood like a department store mannequin, staring off into space.
"Hey... Hey! Quentin, what's wrong? Is everything ok? We should just leave now... right?"
Quentin turned to whoever was speaking to him and was surprised to find it to be Justin.
"Yeah. Leave. You do that. We're all dead, but you don't have to stick around."
"Wait, what's wrong? You guys didn't do anything, everything should be fine."
"The authorities think Max is a Changeling. They want him, and the rest of us, to surrender ourselves into military custody."
"Oh," said Justin, turning slightly, "I see."
Justin, Lauren and Ted all exchanged a brief glance before Ted finally went and closed the dimensional gateway.
"It's our fault we got you into this," began Justin, "and we'll stay and make things right."
Quentin just stopped and stared at Justin.
"Who are you, and what have you done with the real Justin?"
"I may be a Dragon, Quentin, but I'm not a monster."
"Alright everybody," yelled Ted, "listen up. We are surrounded by armed forces that have it in mind to kill us all. As our leaving would not dissuade them from that task we will stay and assist you in getting out of this mess. Now, do any of you have special skills? You know, commando or military training. The ability to go back in time, turn invisible or walk through walls?"
There was a general murmur of "no" throughout the extremely depressed and hopeless crowd.
"No time travel or insubstantiality. Some camouflage," added Quentin.
"So what the hell can you guys all do," yelled Lauren. "I mean you're like all super heroes. Surely you must be able to do something special. You," she said pointing at the currently morphed Silver Dragon, "what do you do for a living?"
"Well, let me see. I give a lot of rides. I help rescue people from cold weather situations. I make appearances at various conventions."
Lauren let out a sigh of exasperation.
"Oh, I almost forgot, I am an actor."
"I'm a writer," said Bard.
"I am an actor as well," said Wanderer.
"Me too," responded Shaun.
"So you are all actors?" asked Justin.
There was a general chorus of "yes" throughout the crowd of Changelings.
"But I'm a writer!" wailed Bard.
"Great, just great. How are we going to convince the government not to kill these people when all we've got is a bunch of useless actors?" Justin asked Ted and Lauren.
"And one writer!"
"I think you just answered your own question," said Ted, ignoring the irritating Centaur.
"What do you mean?"
"They can use their acting skills to convince the authorities that they are not the bad guys."
"Who are the bad guys?"
"We're the bad guys."
"Oh, ok. Wait, we don't want these people fighting us."
"They're actors, they don't know how to fight for real -- but they can make it look like they do."
"I see where you're coming from."
Ted turned to Quentin.
"So, do you think you could help us make this plan work?"
"Maybe. It'll be a hell of a lot easier to make it work if Max is in on the plan, of course. Can you contact him?"
"Sure," replied Justin, "we're in constant contact. What do you want him to do?"
"Alright," said Quentin, thinking furiously. "The goal is to get you and Max recognized as the 'fall guys', and us Changelings off the hook. The climax should be that you three open up a big-ass portal, after which you and Max go through it."
"Max can use his powers to keep the real authorities at bay while we all put on a show," said Lauren. "He would have no problem erecting a dome shaped electromagnetic shield around this facility."
"Okay, that's fine. Have him shift to impressive-looking attacks that don't really do much of anything -- minimize the damage, if at all possible, and keep attention focused on him."
"We can help out with that as well," added Justin. "But we would need some people to actually try and physically fight us."
"I can help with that," said Mike, the Silver Dragon. "So can my new mate as well as any of the other Dragons."
"Ok, so when the time is right, you all 'rise up' against us and we'll put on a good show for the authorities. Until then, we should all work with the people here to get the choreography down," suggested Ted. "Lauren, can you do something magical to keep prying eyes out?"
"I can try, but my magic isn't very strong here. I can't make any claims as to how long it will last."
"Max says he can be here in 2 hours," said Justin.
"Ok," started Quentin, a plot already forming in his mind. "When Max arrives, Justin and Ted can go out onto the roof and begin doing some fake arcane stuff. Something to make the army observers think that they are about to gate in a huge massive force of Dragons or demons or whatever. Then, from within the arena we can start making a lot of noise and then pop out the front door battling Lauren, who will be in full retreat. Justin and Ted then stop what they are doing and then join the fight, turning into a general melee. After a minute or so, I'll break free and run over to the police and inform them that we will stop the evil beings from opening the giant gate or die trying."
"That's good for a start, but I could suggest some alterations," said Ted.
"What makes you think the feds will listen to or believe you?" asked Justin.
"I don't know if they will listen," Quentin admitted with a shrug. "But if it doesn't work, we're not any worse off, now are we? I don't particularly like the idea of hoaxing the Government, but frankly, I like all the alternatives even less. I just hope I've got the balls to pull it off..." At this point, a light bulb went off over Quentin's head. "Talk amongst yourselves, I gotta get something that will be very helpful."
"Hurry back," said Justin before turning to face the huddled crowd. "Ok people, listen up. This isn't going to be easy. Here's the plan..."
The explanation didn't take long as the assembled terrified actors (and writer) listened with intense need. At this point the Changelings were so desperate to a way out of their predicament that Ted could have sold them on practically any course of action that was different than 'sit around and wait to be annihilated'. He was just about to divide the crowd into smaller groups, each with a specific task when the sound of Justin's laughing interrupted him.
"Can you please be quiet, this is important... if... you... haven't... noticed."
Ted found his gaze drifting toward Quentin, who was now wearing what could best be described as a rather 'interesting' costume.
"Nice duds Quentin, but this isn't a fantasy epic."
Quentin, now in full human shape, flung his cape around to his backside. His clothing was predominately black; black tunic, black pants, black leather riding boots. It was trimmed all in silver and complimented by solid silver armbands and a silver circlet with a bright ruby in the center of his forehead.
"You will address me as Lord Cubist!" said Q... Lord Cubist with unaccustomed force.
"Lord Who-bist?" asked Ted.
"I think he said Lord Qubist," responded Justin.
"You are grossly in error, unreliable lackey. I did not say 'Lord Qubist', but, rather, 'Lord Cubist'!"
"Whatever," replied Justin, somewhat taken aback with Quentin's new persona, "why on earth are you wearing those ridiculous clothes Qui... I mean Lord Cubist."
Justin didn't know why he had stopped himself and addressed Quentin by his proper title, but before he could ponder this query his mind went onto other issues.
"Who the hell is this 'Lord Qubist' or 'Cubist' or whatever?!" yelled Ted, now thoroughly confused.
"I, sirrah, am Lord Cubist, and I shall thank you to remember my name and title. It is my duty to maintain order in my demesnes -- order which has been most cruelly taxed by the actions of yourself and your traveling companions, both those present and he who is elsewhere."
Ted blinked for a second, but finding no reason to object, turned back to his task. Justin shuffled his feet and also blankly turned away.
"Um," injected Lauren's rather shrill avian voice, "why are you wearing a powerful magical artifact from another reality?"
"Milady, I shall thank you to refrain from speaking of such things. This world is one which is lacking in magic, as well you know... and damn but it'd be nice if we could just wave a magic wand and make it all better... but... Look, Lauren. I'm about an inch and a half from curling up into a quivering ball of jelly, okay? I need all the self-confidence I can get, and if that means using a crutch like Dumbo's magic feather, I'll take the crutch!"
Lauren was a little confused about this; as she had heard the story, Dumbo had been given his feather by a great Phoenix ancestor. But faulty analogy aside, Lauren shrugged it off and accepted the spirit of what Lord Cubist was telling her.
Lord Cubist, aka Quentin Long, paused to adjust the supple fabric of his tunic. He had always regarded this particular garment as his personal good luck charm and took it with him wherever he went. This day was no different and he had made sure it was close at hand upon returning with Justin, Lauren and Ted to the reunion. The story behind the costume was brief and about as interesting as any other luck charm story. One day, while wandering around a Hollywood production stage, Quentin had had a run in with a lackey which resulted in him and everything he was wearing becoming coated with three double espresso lattes. Having been on the job for only a few days, the lackey still felt some sympathy for Quentin and ushered him to the costume vault where lay, stuffed on the bottom rung of a dusty shelf far in the back, the Lord Cubist outfit. Quentin, once dressed in this ridiculous getup, was sent merrily along his way to his audition. Due to the monolithic successes of both the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series, there had been a sudden demand for fantasy epics, and by a quirk of fate the movie Quentin was going to try out for, Quest of the Delta Knights II, exactly matched his new period garb. Furthermore, through forces Quentin had still not been able to comprehend, the production crew was so thoroughly impressed with his performance that instead of casting him in his intended role as "Village serf #4" they had awarded him the part of "Lord Cubist", a supporting role just short of the lead, in spite of the fact that he had no training or acting experience whatsoever. It was no wonder Quentin held this outfit in such high regard, and three movies and a TV mini-series later, the costume had yet to let him down.
It was then that Bard clip-clopped up and gave Lord Cubist a pat on the shoulder.
"You know, sometimes I think you get a little too deep into your character."
Quentin took a deep breath and exhaled.
"Bard, what we need is a person with near-toxic levels of chutzpah -- and it just so happens that I've been playing someone like that for the past few years. So please, don't remind me that 'Lord Cubist' is just a popular character from a series of novels and a TV series, okay?"
"I don't know why, but I believe in you," responded Bard. "Just give me a job and I'll do it. However, I'll thank you to not get used to it when we get the Foundation up and running."
Visibly getting back into character, Lord Cubist replied, "Your vote of confidence is noted and appreciated, friend Bard. I believe that your abilities most lend themselves to the position of strategist; with your agile mind constructing the tactics we shall employ, we cannot help but succeed! However, before you begin your task, I would recommend that you refresh your knowledge of the powers and abilities we Changelings have at our disposal. I believe Blue Knight's data files should be most helpful in this regard. While you are so engaged, I shall make an attempt to bring this sordid affair to a favorable close through diplomatic means."
With this Lord Cubist made a quick about-face complete with the appropriate cape flare, and marched off toward the main street exit confident that, if TV ratings were any sort of metric, Lord Cubist's natural charisma would defuse the situation in two shakes of a kitten's tail. Upon reaching the exit and modifying his body to at least be somewhat bullet resistant, Lord Cubist slowly opened the door and took a step outside.
"Freeze!! Return to within the building or we will be forced to open fire!!" came a voice over a several megawatt loudspeaker.
Lord Cubist glanced around as a battalion of police and more than a few tanks pointing the business ends of their weapons at him.
"Gentlemen! You are but doing your duty as you conceive it to be as such, I say there is no need for violence! I speak to you now in hopes that the unfortunate misunderstanding which has mobilized your forces may be dispelled by the clear light of reason."
There was a pause, a brief pause. A pause just long enough for all the assembled police to blink twice. This was followed by an almost audible snap and Quentin could physically see the temporarily frozen forces shake themselves free of whatever sense of rationality he was trying to impress upon them.
"Prepare to fire!!"
"I see that this is not a good time to chat," hurriedly replied Lord Cubist, satisfying an instinctual need to remain polite, "Fare thee well!"
Lord Cubist again turned on his heels, again complete with cape flourish, and quickly entered the building. All eyes drew toward him as he re-entered the arena.
"Well?" asked Justin, "how'd it go?"
Lord Cubist sadly shook his head at Justin and addressed the crowd.
"Fellow Changelings, I bring ill tidings. Those who have surrounded this structure are utterly without any desire to resolve the current difficulties in a nonviolent manner. Therefore... we must needs consider other methods. Friend Bard, have you any new thoughts on this matter?"
Bard looked at Cubist, and then rubbed his hands together, a gleeful eagerness filling his eyes.
"We have three tasks before us. Neither four nor two without us continuing to three. Five is right out. First, we must delay the assault for the two hours until Max arrives; second, we must keep those outside from coming in shooting; and third, we must lay the foundation for our fiction to be believed. To that end, Justin and Co. are now the Evil Invaders holding us as hostages. That means that we all have to be crowded in the centre. The Evil Invaders can be gorging on the food, and otherwise taking nefarious advantage. Cubist, you're the noble resistance, arguing to keep them from just eating us. Now all we need is a secret spy to sneak away, and turn on the cameras so that everybody can see what is 'really' happening. Wanderer?"
"I'd be honored to enhance my fledgling career..." a large number of the Changelings gagged at this remark, "...with this much needed social enhancement."
Officer Steve Grabowski sat in the communications van stirring a cup of instant coffee and watching as the equipment scanned through the electromagnetic spectrum searching for any communications that might be emanating from the arena where the Changeling terrorists had holed themselves up. It had been many long hours of fruitless search, but Officer Steve had several gallons of hot water, a gross of coffee packets and nothing better to do, not to mention all the overtime he was earning. As he leaned back to finish up the Times crossword puzzle, the hiss of static began to pour from the speakers and snow appeared on the monitor. Officer Steve was about to give the equipment a good old-fashioned smack upside the case, when the snowy image faded into a clear television picture and the static faded away into coherent sound.
"Hey Steve, you want me to take over for a second? They have a whole table of pizza set out, maybe you should grab some," said Sergeant Mahoney, sticking his head into the back of the van.
"Sarge, I think you you'd better have a look at this. I'm getting some sort of signal from inside the arena."
Both officers stared at the screen that now showed a perfect image of the inside of the old sports center. Around the floor, huddled like rag dolls were the whole host of Changelings. Morphs, 'taurs, scalies and furries, were all on the floor, some shaking, all quietly looking on at the two large Dragons and one giant orange bird taking up center stage. In between giving threatening glances to the Changelings huddled around them the Dragons stuffed their maws with all the ambient catering and the Phoenix slowly scratched out a complex pattern on the arena floor.
"How much longer?" asked the red Dragon between mouthfuls.
"Just a few more minutes and the portal will be ready. Our army of Demons will stream forth and make quick work of this pathetic little world."
At this point there was some movement along the side of the image and Lord Cubist, the popular TV and film character that stepped forth.
"I beg of you creatures, if there is any mercy left in your hearts please, please spare our planet. We have no possible defense against your magical army and we could provide nothing that would remotely interest such powerful beings as yourselves. I humbly beg of you to leave us be."
The Phoenix eyed Lord Cubist for a moment and then broke out in a high peal of laughter.
"Nothing to offer us? Your slow and painful deaths will provide us with entertainment for years to come. You are brave for an Earth creature and I respect that. For you bravery I will bestow unto you a gift. You will be the last to die. You can watch as we squeeze every last drop of life from this planet and leave it a burning dead rock floating in space."
With that the Phoenix stuck out her wing and effortlessly sent Lord Cubist flying through the air toward an impact somewhere in the mezzanine seating level.
The Phoenix paused for a second and looked over at the two Dragons.
They three continued on in unison until one of the Dragons' eyes seemed to catch directly in the camera's line of vision.
"What the fuck!?" exclaimed the Emerald Dragon as he began to advance upon the camera, Jurassic Park-style.
A faint noise of scrambling could be heard, but it was too late. An emerald talon flashed across the screen, there was a flash of a wolf's muzzle, a horrifying scream, an ominous crunch, a spray of blood drops hitting the camera lens, and sound of an impact, metal and glass crunching and finally... static. Blank static.
Officer Grabowski was the only one who found words.
"Oh my god, I think we're screwed."
"Annndddd... Cut! That was great, people!" yelled Lord Cubist. "Wanderer, your stagecraft leaves me in awe. Wonderful death scream. You really had me shaking there. Ummmm, Ted and Justin, just one thing? Can you try not to miss your cues next time? It only takes one little mistake to give us away. Now let's all get ready for the next scene, shall we? Wanderer, are you ok over there?"
"I am tolerably well, albeit our emerald friend might loosen his grip..."
Ted opened his talon and deposited Wanderer onto the ground.
"...ah, thank you most terribly, Theodore."
"Hey, no problem, you're a natural stunt wolf."
"Might I suggest that a somewhat less Stanislavskian approach would result in rather less wear and tear on the sets, props, and actors?"
"I will take that into consideration. Oh, by the way, you seem to have a little schmutz on your fur there."
Wanderer turned to Blue Knight who was still crouched down behind some crates with the special effects 'blood' Bard had whipped up from basic kitchen supplies.
"Dear boy, could you exercise a smidgen more caution in your use of the squirt bottle, please?"
He then raised his head and looked around for a towel.
"Ah -- there you are, Cody! Just what I was in search of!" said Wanderer, taking the towel from the pony morph, gingerly stepping over the hundreds of crab and lobster shells that the Silver Dragon had crushed to make the realistic 'crunching bone' sound effect.
"I hope they bought it," said Lord Cubist, turning toward Bard from the smoking remains of the television camera. "That was the only camera we had."
"Oh my God!" exclaimed Agent Johnson, the man in charge of the continuing Changeling crisis as he sat in a plain white van, unmarked except for the words "Flowers By Irene" stenciled on each side.
"Did that Dragon just eat the host of that PBS game show? The one where they give away like literary tours of England... You know, Name That Folio," remarked agent Smith.
"No no, he was the host of Classics Fur All," contested Agent Jones.
"He was the host of both," said Agent Johnson in a more than irritated tone of voice, "and that is clearly beside the point here. Didn't you see the video? In about 20 minutes there's going to be an army of Demons invading Earth and I think that definitely classifies as a category-14 situation that requires immediate rectification. Smith, get on the horn to the president and inform him of the situation. Johnson, you call the Joint Chiefs. We're going to need air cover here, tanks, Marines, the whole shebang. We need them here 10 minutes ago."
Both agents turned to leave the van.
"Oh! One more thing, tell them I recommend going to DefCon 2 and putting our strategic forces on full alert. And you, tech guy, get this video transferred and sent down to Washington, ASAP." Agent Johnson turned away from the video console and stepped boldly out of the van. The unit commanders quickly flocked to his side. "Ok guys, this is it. I am ordering an immediate attack, everything we have, all units, all assault teams. The tanks on street level will begin blasting open the existing exits and creating new ones. All other ground units will fire into the building to create confusion and knock out windows. I want tear gas and shock grenades going into every hole we open, lots of them. Air unit 3 will deposit 5 explosive charges on the roof through which the aerial assault teams will enter and I want the subterranean units in Penn Station to flood in through the basement entrances, the ventilation system and through the holes they will blast with their own charges. Alright everyone, let's synchronize our watches, the operation will begin in 60 seconds."
55 seconds later, Agent Johnson stood, gun in hand, behind the door of an NYPD squad car, counting down into his walkie-talkie.
"Four, three, two, one, all units attack now!"
The roar that followed was deafening. At last 20 tanks and armored vehicles opened up on the structures. 2500 law enforcement officers, 1000 National Guard troops and 500 concerned citizens all blazed away with everything they had. Some said the noise could be heard as far away as Westchester, others reported broken windows and storefronts as far away as 50 blocks. However, despite all this cacophony, despite all this collateral damage, something, something very important was amiss. Gradually the firing subsided until it stopped all together. There was not a scratch, not one single scratch upon the building that was their intended target. A transparent force field had materialized and served to protect the arena from all possible harm. Gaping in utter disbelief, his gun lowered uselessly at his side, Agent Johnson gradually let his eyes drift upwards from the Garden to a fixed point in the sky above it. There, hovering with a toothy grin on its face was the great Atomic Dragon that had started this whole mess. Its head shot up into the air and it let loose a magnificent bellow of triumph.
"Aw, fuck it," said Agent Johnson, throwing down his gun. "I'm getting a drink. So much for humanity."
Just as the situation seemed as hopeless as it could get, there was an explosion on the roof of the arena and molten metal debris began to rain down on the surrounding police. Just what exactly was going on wasn't clear from the ground. Momentary glimpses revealed a flash of feathers, a glint of scales, a swish of tail, but nothing more. It was only then that Agent Johnson pulled himself back to reality and answered the urgent call on his radio.
"Sir! This is air unit 3. I... I can't really describe what's going on sir."
"Just tell me pilot!" Johnson yelled.
"It's the Changelings sir... they're fighting them! They're fighting back!"
A great cheer went up from the assembled crowd.
"Can you give me any more than that?" asked Johnson.
"There's this big green Dragon... and a Phoenix. The bigger Changelings, the Dragons and Griffins, seem to be grappling with them up on the roof. I also think they have some sort of weapon. They are firing these... these energy blasts at the big flying Dragon... the radioactive one."
Agent Johnson put down his radio and looked over at the arena.
"Go get 'em guys! The Earth is counting on you."
"So," said Justin to Lord Cubist, "are you ready for our big stunt sequence?"
"Of course, sir. I am a professional, after all. And yourself?"
"You know I haven't been exactly the best guest and I just wanted to make sure that lingering animosity doesn't spill over into our work here."
"Bloody hell!" yelled Bard in the background. "Ted's phaser doesn't have an unlimited battery you know. Short bursts. It's an effect, not a crutch!"
"Think nothing of it, Justin. I shall play my part; if you but play yours, we have nothing to fear."
"That's good to hear. Do you think its time you shifted into your, um, alternate form?"
"Yes... I think the Star Dragon, my role in Dragonheart IV, should do nicely."
"Make sure those scales are really metallic, if they aren't the plasma effect will fry you to a cinder."
"Alright! Places, everyone!" bellowed Bard. "All Centaurs and equines to the roof! Make sure you have your folding chairs! Justin and Lord Cubist, you're on in five!"
Quentin's skin tone immediately began darkening; at the same time, his height started to increase. Justin smirked.
"What did you say about having to conserve mass?"
"I said I must do that, regardless of Lauren's thoughts."
Quentin's voice was growing deeper, with an increasing amount of inhuman resonance with each syllable. In addition, his general anatomy was clearly not strictly human. Bright silver scales spread over his body like an oil slick, his neck grew long and sinuous, his nails formed into razor sharp talons and his arms and legs grew thicker, more powerful. With a fleshy ripping sound, great skeletal wings burst forth from his back and as they grew a tough silver membrane flowed in an effort to connect the skeletal spars forming a massive continuous sail. Quentin's torso began to expand outward into massive proportions; his hips, knees and ankles rearranged with a muffled 'thunk'; soon he found his point of view raised head and shoulders above everyone else. He watched as a saurian muzzle pushed out from between his eyes, his hearing improved as his fin-like Dragon ears pushed out from the side of his head and he felt the deadly weight of his horns growing up out of his armored skull. When the transformation was complete Quentin sat back on his haunches and spread his wings out to stretch the stiffness out of them. Quentin paused. There was something different about this form since the last time he had changed into it.
"Hey, Lord Cubist! Are you done dreaming? We have a job to do, remember," prodded a somewhat annoyed red Dragon who had not needed nearly as much time to effect his shape shift.
Lord Cubist dropped to his feet and began to walk towards the door, but this again sounded the alarm bells in his mind. Something was definitely not right. He stopped short in an effort to ponder what was going on which resulted in Justin plowing right into his rear.
"Move your ass," complained Justin, trying to push Lord Cubist aside.
Instinctually, Loud Cubist retaliated and shoved Justin back with his hips, sending the arrogant red Dragon sprawling on his rear. Justin growled, but decided to let the matter drop and slowly got back to his feet. He noticed Lord Cubist staring a hole into his own talons.
"I'm... I'm solid."
"Well call the newspapers, this is momentous," replied Justin sarcastically.
"That's exactly right -- lots of momentum. As in, I've picked up a hell of a lot of mass from nowhere!"
"Well smell you. How else do you normally shapeshift?"
"Normally, my mass stays the same, and when I change size, I'm just shuffling my existing mass into a larger or smaller volume, not unlike blowing up a balloon. But now..."
Lord Cubist looked at Justin with an expression of pure excitement. Justin just shrugged at him.
"Jesus Christ! Lauren wasn't just blowing smoke! You guys do make hamburger out of physical laws! Christ on a sidecar -- this is utterly incredible!"
"Um, Lord Cubist, um, we sort of have a job now," called Justin trying to get the attention of the large metallic Dragon as he studied the forces of his foreleg impacting with the concrete floor.
"Perpetual motion -- you really can build an overbalanced wheel that stays overbalanced, just a matter of creating and destroying mass at the right moments!"
"Infinite energy! Pollution is a solved problem! Transmutation of elements!"
"And good God, but what does this do to quantum mechanics?"
"God damn it Cubist, the curtain goes up in 26 seconds!" roared Justin, smacking the shapeshifter upside his draconic skull just about as hard as he could.
Lord Cubist glared at Justin for a second, a small puff of celestial fire escaping his nostril.
"Fine. Let's get on with it, then."
"Now you remember how to work the safety catch on that plasma gun... right?"
"Yes, mother. I do remember how to work the safety catch on your insanely dangerous toy."
A deafening roar coming from street level startled the police, who were standing transfixed as they watched the unfolding battle on the roof. As they turned to look, a gargantuan Red Dragon tore through the front of One Penn Plaza.
"Hear me pitiful humans," it snarled in a voice dripping with evil. "Your puny 'Changelings' might have caught us by surprise, but they are no match for our might and it is only a matter of time until your planet is under our control. Mu-ha-ha-ha-ha."
The police on the front line, still separated by the invisible barrier, visibly recoiled in horror as a demonic grin spread across the creature's face.
A voice deeper than the Marianis Trench, resonating deep in the bones, was then heard coming behind from behind the red monster: "Time is infinite, disrespectful one. And infinite is exactly how much time will pass before the likes of you ever succeed in your despicable plots!"
A disembodied voice suddenly rang in the Red Dragon's head.
//Great! Now loosen up a bit, 'cuz I'm gonna hit hard.\\
And then what remained of the MSG entryway exploded as the Star Dragon emerged with great force, knocking the Red Wyrm ass-over-teakettle, and leaving it sprawled out in the decorative grass strip between the building and the sidewalk.
"Humph," grunted the Star Dragon as it backed onto its haunches, turned his back on his twitching foe and waddled commandingly over towards the invisible barrier and the spectating throngs of law enforcement.
"Fear not! It is I, Lord Cubist," the basso profundo words rumbled forth. "These miscreants must and shall be scourged of their evil!"
The body of Justin began to make some more cohesive movements.
"I, in my capacity as current incarnation of the ineffable Star Dragon, do hereby swear and affirm my unyielding opposition to such as these extratemporal parasites!"
//Come on -- I can't keep laying it on this thick for much longer before we lose all credibility...\\
Justin rolled back onto his limbs and began to pant and growl as he reached slowly and ominously behind his back. Several of the officers began to look in his direction with a few going so far as to point.
//Just a little bit more Lord Cubist, get ready for your cue.\\
Lord Cubist briefly looked around in various other directions that did not include those near the oversized red lizard and continued unabated.
"This easily vanquished crimson one is clearly no threat; as his comrades are not in evidence, perhaps we may hope that they, too, are equally cowardly in the face of principled opposition!"
"Look out!" screamed one of the cops.
Lord Cubist craned his neck around just in time to see Justin, standing up, an evil grin spread all the way across his maw, drool dripping from his chin and a nasty looking, futuristic plasma gun in his outstretched talon, pointed right at the heroic Star Dragon.
"Die!" hissed Justin.
//Now!\\ he then thought-yelled, and right on cue Lord Cubist took a flying leap toward the building.
As Lord Cubist's truck sized body traveled through the air, Justin pressed the trigger and fired right at him. However, due to the laws of motion, the shots impacted the points in space where Lord Cubist had just been, not where he was. The whole scene took only a second in real time, but it was just as amazing as any Hollywood CG effect as Lord Cubist just seemed to dodge the string of brilliant plasma balls as they traced a path of explosive destruction behind him. Lord Cubist landed and took cover behind the Penn Station entryway as Justin then tried to blast it out of the way.
"What's the matter, Star Dragon? Scared?"
Justin unleashed another round of firing into the rapidly disintegrating structure.
"You will never defeat us. You death will be cold and painful."
Justin started to fire again and just as it looked like Lord Cubist's cover was almost totally blasted away, the plasma gun went 'click' and stopped firing.
"Damnations," exclaimed the evil Red Dragon as he desperately began to fumble with the magazine catch in an effort to rapidly reload his weapon.
With an almost casual set of gestures, the Star Dragon dusted himself off and rose to his feet, facing Justin, his wings spread.
"You missed, foul one."
The Star Dragon sort of made a face and looked like he was gathering in some sort of energy. This point was re-enforced by the beams of light that seemed to shine into his chest, the swirls of sparkles that orbited him and blue glow that enveloped his entire body.
"I, on the other claw, shall not miss."
With this Lord Cubist began to stalk forward.
//Aim for my right shoulder -- I got a great routine set up for it.\\
As Justin slammed the new clip home he carefully dialed the energy level way down, thus rendering the weapon as dangerous as a BB gun. Giving the requisite insane roar Justin once again opened up at the Star Dragon, the shots blasting into the right shoulder as requested. Scales and bits of hide flew everywhere and the sent of burning flesh filling the air. The onlookers gasped in horror, but Lord Cubist remained undaunted. From the wound a bright, blinding light began to shine forth and from it began to congeal a new coat of silver armor for the great good Dragon. Within seconds the shoulder looked as if nothing had ever been wrong.
"I think you'll have to do better than that."
Justin gasped and took a tentative step back, but his rage was undiminished as he opened fire again on Lord Cubist. This time, however, the great Star Dragon wasn't even inconvenienced, continuing to walk forward he brushed the plasma balls aside with his talons as if they were nothing more than streams from a water pistol. As he came within reaching distance, Lord Cubist lashed out, first knocking the gun aside and then forcing it out of Justin's grasp with a well-placed chop.
"It is time enough to put the toys away."
Justin let out a mighty roar and delivered a devastating punch to the Star Dragon's muzzle. He then followed it up with a score of rapid-fire impacts to Lord Cubist's sternum, then kicks, and a spin move that used his tail to send the Star Dragon down on his back side that was followed up with a few well placed stomps. Cubist grimaced in pain as the blood flowed freely from his many wounds, but internally he smiled. Just like any good connoisseur of action movie fight scenes knows, as soon as the weapons are discarded the evil villain must then go and kick the hero within an inch of his life so it would appear to the casual viewer that there is no hope for victory. The more hopeless the situation, the better the fight, and Lord Cubist was going to make sure this fight was one for the ages.
//Do you think that's enough?\\ asked Justin mentally as he grabbed Lord Cubist by his right side appendages and airplaned him into the side of One Penn Plaza, bending several support columns. //I'm getting pretty tired and you're bleeding pretty bad.\\
//Don't worry -- it's not like I actually need any of that red stuff! Fact is, I've re-routed some of my arteries and veins to get better 'blood effects', and rearranged fat deposits to absorb the impact of your punches, and dialed down the sensitivity of my pain receptors. But since you're tired, I think it's about time for me to start the 'rest and recharge' phase. I'll catch one of your next kicks and flip you over my back, okay?\\
//Ok, on three. One!\\
Justin grabbed the Star Dragon's forepaws and devastating kick that lifted his seemingly battered and limp body off the ground.
The Star Dragon suddenly came alive and launched himself over and behind the evil red Dragon just as the creature delivered his third kick. Using Justin's momentum, it was a simple procedure to launch him spinning head-over-tail clear to the other end of the block. Both Lord Cubist and Justin then took a pause, a stagger, and a pant and heighten the suspense. After a few seconds Justin gave an imperceptible nod and the fight was back on. He picked up an I-beam knocked loose from the building and advanced with confidence on the exhausted-looking Star Dragon.
Meanwhile, back on the roof, a confused battle was raging. Ted and Lauren were carrying the bulk of the fight, as Max was occupied with the heavy task of keeping the force shield up and the combined land, sea and air forces of the United States at bay. Lauren's complete control of fire gave her a ready supply of special effects to simulate "magical" weapons on either side, and little balls of dangerous-looking (but generally harmless) plasma flew in all directions. Ted was busy fending off three economy-sized Changelings and unlike the center stage fight down below, he mainly took a defensive stance that served to 'humiliate' the 'inept' abilities of the Changelings attacking him. Brotzy, the big Silver Dragon, was engaged in an intricate pas de deux with Max, flying high above the arena. He needed to be sure that Max would not be distracted or otherwise incapacitated, as that would mean the end of the shield and their little show. As Brotzy was now fully magical he was entitled to the standard benefits thereof, including telepathy with free nationwide long distance and no roaming. Using his new abilities he danced with Max in the bright midday sky, each move meticulously choreographed. While all this went on, Bard, the organizer of this chaos, was on his radio link with Lauren.
"Alright, Lauren, it's time for the big scene. Deploy the fire wall now."
Lauren let out a keen, drew her birdy self up, spread her wings wide and willed an impassable wall of flame into existence between her and the Changeling actors standing before her on the roof all armed with a crude assortment of weapons that were mostly just waved in Lauren's general direction.
//Ok, it's up. I'm ready for your move,\\ she replied mentally.
Bard took a deep breath. As director of this little show he had taken the liberty of writing himself into one of the more dramatic roles, but with such a role came great pressure and in Bard's stomachs the butterflies were fluttering and his glossy coat was damp with sweat. With one final check of his shoes, Bard took a breath and began to gallop. He galloped along the catwalk that ran under the roof of the arena. He galloped, faster and faster, hitting the makeshift ramp and bounding out onto the roof. He galloped, his legs a blur as he kicked up the stone gravel on the flat roof. He galloped as he rounded a curve and headed straight on at the wall of fire. Lauren began to turn toward him, but it was too late. He leaped the wall in a graceful bound, the hot fire scorching his light brown fur, but Bard wasn't paying attention to that. As Lauren turned her body to face him, Bard landed and pivoted on his forelegs, spinning his powerful rear end around toward her. His legs lashed out and from the point of view of anyone watching, they impacted solidly with Lauren's left wing. The golden Phoenix let out of shriek of incredible pain, the fire wall died and she began to hop away from the raging Centaur, her wing dangling uselessly at her side.
"Follow me everybody!" bellowed Bard, picking up a food cart umbrella like a spear. "Let's show this overgrown feather-duster what a bunch of 'small inferior creatures' can do!"
The mob of singed and sooty Changelings who were not part of the 'Ted unit' shouted with 'enthusiasm' and 'exuberance' (as indicated on their 3x5 card full of stage directions), grabbed whatever makeshift weapon had been assigned to them and then charged the hobbling Phoenix, screaming whatever they envisioned as a 'war cry' at the top of their lungs.
Lord Cubist rolled his Dragon body out of the way just a fraction of a second before an I-beam wielded by Justin impacted with the sidewalk, sending an explosion of concrete up into the air.
"Why do you keep running away from me Quentin? I thought we were friends."
"Friends with a would-be world conqueror? I have higher standards than that!"
Lord Cubist dove out of the way of another near miss. The Star Dragon had been on the defensive for about five minutes now and he was afraid that the fight was growing stale. Many of the surrounding law enforcement officers had either turned their attention to the roof or were watching team coverage on small portable TVs. While he briefly considered the moral implications of his working for an industry that had fostered such an incredibly short attention span, such concerns were way beside the point at this moment in time.
//I think we'd better end it now. The natives are getting restless,\\ thought Lord Cubist to Justin. //Cut straight to the Grand Finale, shall we?\\
//Ok, cue the reversal move on my next swing.\\
Justin went again to pummel the Star Dragon with the I-beam, but as he brought the beam down he intentionally slipped slightly on the loose debris. Lord Cubist then used Justin's brief unbalance to get his talon on the bean, guide it harmlessly to the side and wrench it from Justin's grasp, all while simultaneously springing to his legs. Justin was allowed a brief moment clarity to fully appreciate his impending doom.
Lord Cubist didn't let Justin finish as he delivered a forearm chop to the red Dragon's windpipe and then pulled Justin's arm out, slammed his knee up and simulated the sound of Justin's elbow breaking. Justin screamed, but the Star Dragon would show no mercy as he delivered a crushing head butt, slammed the disoriented red Dragon to the ground and stepped brutally on his right forepaw simulating more bone crunching sounds. Justin tried to crawl away but the Star Dragon lightly took hold of his tail and pulled him back.
"Sic temper tyrannis, foul creature!"
Lord Cubist brought Justin to his feet and then rocked his knee up into Justin's groin. There was a general expression of "Oooooooo" from the crown outside the barrier, obviously indicating that none of the onlookers were in any way cognizant of the fact that Dragons have their genitalia located in an armored pouch inside their body. Justin nonetheless sold this cheap gag by doubling over and vomiting, which left a nice smoking hole in the pavement. This action was in fact the set up for the next stunt where the Star Dragon calmly walked up and delivered a staggering uppercut to the chin of the retching red Dragon punctuated with a draconic "kyaaAIIIII!!!!"
The fact that a Dragon's long elastic neck was quite immune from this type of physical impact was again lost on the crowd as Justin launched himself into the air, went head over talons and landed on his back, in what would appear to all but a slow motion camera to be the crushing result of the Star Dragon's righteous rage. The Star Dragon paused a moment to crack his knuckles and stretch his neck before ominously walking toward the location there Justin was struggling to his feet. He reared back his powerful silver armored arm and crushed his talon into a fist and began to slam it back and forth into Justin's wobbling body like a pile driver.
"Wyrm... you... have... lost!"
The words were bellowed out at the top of his lungs as each punch hit home. On 'lost' he slammed both his talons clenched in a combined fist directly into Justin's chest. Using a disposable time alteration spell in the palm of his claw, Justin was able to create a bubble of slow time around both him and the Star Dragon creating a Matrix-style moment where the Star Dragon seemed to freeze, his fists fully extended in front of his body, Justin flying backward, legs off the ground, his body bent into a shallow inverse 'C', and a multitude of small droplets of sweat, spit and blood hanging in the air. Then, as suddenly as it had started, the spell's magical energy was exhausted and Justin rocketed backward into the battered front of One Penn Plaza, bits of the crumbling façade cascading around him.
By this point Justin looked just about dead, but it was clear to the onlookers that a bloody grin had formed upon his horrid maw. Lord Cubist's punch landed Justin conveniently close to his plasma weapon. Laughing insanely Justin clawed himself toward the gun, pressed a few buttons and the disheartening sound of a weapon rapidly overloading filled the air.
"You haven't won, Star Dragon," Justin spat the words with contempt, "when my weapon overloads this city will be reduced to rubble and you along with it. You are finished Star Dragon... from Hell's heart I stab at thee. Ha ha, ha ha ha. Muh ha ha, Hoo hoo ha ha haa, Muh ha ha hoo hoo ha."
As Justin's diatribe faded into peels of insane madman laughter style no. 46. Lord Cubist prepared himself for the grand finale.
//Ready for the climax, Justin?\\
//Ready as I'll ever be. Just keep your celestial fire under 10,000 degrees. I'm not invincible you know.\\
//Thanks for revealing your evil plan to me. I'm getting lost in all these ad-libs.\\
//Hey, what kind of evil overload would I be if I hadn't spilled the beans?\\
The Star Dragon deftly waved his right index talon back and forth like he was admonishing a young hatchling. This prompted Justin to stop laughing and squint his eyes in time to see the Star Dragon erupt in a big toothless grin and snort a bit of blue sparkly fire from his nostrils.
"No... No... No... No!" howled Justin, "It's not possible! Celestial fire is only a myth! You will die! You must die! I must kill you and you can't stop me!"
"If Celestial Fire is but a myth, what have you to fear, oh mighty red Dragon?"
The Star Dragon reared his head slightly backward and then brought it forward expelling a brilliant blue spherical vortex.
"Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!" the Red Dragon screamed in the grand tradition of any villain's final scene.
The whole area was overtaken in a blinding flash the color of lightning and of an intensity that would normally call for OSHA-approved welding glasses. When the crowd pulled their hands away from their eyes and looked around the spots in their vision they saw the once grand and arrogant red Dragon streaking in a parabolic arc up toward the roof of the arena, smoking like an inverse meteor. As Justin's flaming hulk crested the roof he smacked broadside into Ted and the two of them tumbled into the center of the roof, taking down Lauren along the way. A cry of triumph went up from the assembled Changelings.
"Now's our chance everybody, move in for the kill!" yelled Bard.
The motley gang of List members with whatever passed for weapons in their hands moved in on the flailing demon creatures. Then, without warning and despite the daylight, the arena roof was bathed in a blinding white light and shaken by a violent explosion. Directly above the roof and at the center of an expanding shockwave of pure energy was a bright shimmering spatial anomaly.
"Well I'll be," remarked Brotzy to the Star Dragon as they both landed on the roof. "The Aurora Borealis, in this part of the country, at this time of day, localized entirely above this arena."
"Brotzman," began the Star Dragon turning toward the young Silver Dragon, "we happen to be at far too southerly a latitude for that to be the Aurora Borealis. In point of fact, that display of special effects is much more compatible with the hypothesis that it's a dimensional portal -- wait a moment, dimensional portal? Stop the foul creatures!!!!"
As those surrounding the complex suddenly noticed that the invisible force wall had suddenly gone down, throngs of police and military officials began to swarm into the building.
"Sir," said the tank company commander to Agent Johnson, "should we open fire?"
"That's a negative soldier, those are national heroes on the roof and it's bad press to kill national heroes."
Max canceled out his force fields and dropped to the arena roof with a thud, bending and twisting critical roof supports underneath. With a sweeping motion of his head he bared his teeth and sent the charging Changelings reeling back with a bloodthirsty growl. Then, neatly picking up the struggling foul creatures like three rag dolls he launched himself upward through the shimmering portal several hundred feet above the arena roof.
"We'll be back, mark my words!" bellowed Max, "You can never stop the Dark Forces!"
"We have stopped you here and now, foul one! And should you return again, we shall stop you again!" responded Lord Cubist, his roar twice as loud.
//So long guys!\\ called Lauren mentally to all the Changelings within easy mindshot while Max and Lord Cubist postured. //We had a great time, sorry about the mess.\\
//'Tis no problem Lady Phoenix,\\ replied Brotzy, //'Twas an honour and a privilege to make your acquaintance.\\
Those Changelings who could affirmed this mentally.
//Maybe we could do this again,\\ called out Justin, also maintaining a state of limpness in Max's grasp. //It was a real joy working with you all.\\
//Likewise,\\ replied Brotzy.
//Live long and prosper,\\ called out Ted, violating several copyrights.
Even thought they couldn't express it openly, the Changelings all tried in whatever way they could to say farewell to the three explorers who in just two days had completely altered the course of their lives. They watched as Max generated a brilliant light to simulate the classic cinematic fade to white and when their vision again became clear, all trace of the three bold Dragons and the single regal Phoenix had disappeared. As they watched the remnants of the portal collapse in upon itself, each and every Changeling cried... just a little.
Seconds later, the SWAT teams, who had tried their darnedest to get up to the roof in a timely manner, charged up the ramp and with yells and screams turned their weapons and let loose a hail of gunfire... punishing only the empty air above the arena.
"Greetings, gentlemen," said the victorious Star Dragon. "It would appear that our opponents have cut and run, doubtless not liking the odds against them. I sincerely hope that they do not come back."
And with that the final act was over. Evil was defeated, good had triumphed against long odds and the Changelings were worldwide heroes who were ready to take their curtain call.
It had been 9 grueling hours of debriefings and press conferences, but the Changelings had finely been let loose to try to get on with their forever drastically altered lives. Brotzy, heroic Silver Dragon, was walking in his new human form in a service corridor under Madison Square Garden when he spied Lord Cubist, aka Quentin Long, aka The Star Dragon. Quentin seemed to be preoccupied with turning his right arm back and forth into a full sized Dragon talon.
"Greetings m'Lord Cubist. Whatever might you be doing there?"
"Experimenting, my good friend. This opens up an unbelievably wide range of possibilities never before seen through out the entire scope of human existence. I mean for instance I can... um, never mind."
"So I see that the authorities have finished their examination of you."
"All in all, I have to admit that this wasn't a bad couple of days. Things turned out pretty well."
Quentin gave a weary smile and laugh. "I suppose so, but I could've used a less stressful method of getting there."
"I found this in my lunch carrier," said Brotzy, holding up a white envelope. "I think it's a letter from Lady Lauren."
The human-looking Dragon tore the end off the envelope, blew it open, removed a slip of paper and began to read.
"Awwww," said Brotzy, involuntarily reacting to the Phoenix scent.
Thank you so much for hosting us. We all had a really great time. You Changelings are the nicest people we have ever met.
"Well isn't that sweet..." trailed Brotzy.
"Just keep your hand on your wallet," Quentin said.
I left an inter-reality communicator in your sleeping furs, so if you or any of the other Changelings want to contact us, feel free to drop us a line. The number is in speed dial and on a little post-it note. The communicator will run on any old AA sized batteries.
"How thoughtful," said Brotzy, "I think I'll definitely have to do that one of these days."
Who knows, maybe we could even arrange for you to visit our home world. We have a big old mansion out on Long Island and it sleeps about 130 so you would really be no burden at all.
"I think not. Considering how they behaved here, how can we be sure that their mansion doesn't come with hot and cold running protesters outside the gates?" snidely commented Quentin.
Anyway, it was really nice meeting you people. This is an experience I will treasure for the rest of my life. Best of luck in all your endeavors!
Love, Lady Lauren, Keeper of the Great Eternal Flame.
"What a wonderful letter," cooed Brotzy.
"I just hope she and her inner Phoenix aren't doing anything stupid... wait a minute. Communicator? You mean they left more permanent contamination?"
"Oh stop fretting. How's a little cell phone going to screw things up? It's not like it's a weapon."
"Basic principle of networking, Brotzy -- if you can touch it, it can touch you right back. You want to be touched by those three, let alone Max, again? Still... as long as we're careful about it, the damage shouldn't be that great..."
"I guess it's a good thing I got to that plasma rifle of Justin's before the army guys found it. I don't know what it's made out of, but it sure stood up to your celestial fire."
"For the love of God, man, hand it over now!" said Quentin, looking like he'd just been poleaxed.
"That would be illogical. Every group of superheroes needs a super special weapon if they have any chance to defeat evil. If we give up the weapon how could we fight evil?"
"Who wants to? I, for one, have a lot better things to do with my life than sit by the Red Phone and wait for Commissioner Gordon to call. As a one-shot deal, fine, we were in the right place at the right time, but do you seriously think any of us will ever get that lucky again? We don't have the training or equipment or inclination to fight evil on a permanent basis!"
"Didn't you hear the announcement? Blue Knight and all the other top Changelings announced the formation of The Super Squad on TV about 2 hours ago and you're the main character. Don't worry about a Red Phone though, we are all going to get these little pagers."
"Listen Brotzy, you're a smart Dragon so maybe you can grasp what I am about to tell you. Superheroes fight super-villains, and unless you count third world dictators this planet is grossly short of super-villains. Anything less can easily be handled by local law enforcement."
"Oh I know that. That's why I was taking with the networks this afternoon."
"Networks," asked Quentin, quivering with suppressed rage from Blue Knight's unilateral decision-making.
"Of course I know that we aren't real super heroes and of course I know there aren't any real super-villains, but nobody else has to know that. This deal I've worked out is going to be big. They've already committed to a 22-episode season. It's Good vs Evil in prime time. Epic locations. Epic battles. The next big thing in reality television!"
"Reality television? But it will all be fake!"
"All reality television is fake. Didn't you get the memo? People don't have the patience for real reality any more. Why do you think they watch TV? They want their world divided up into nice hour long segments where everything is wrapped up at the end with someone going home the loser and someone going home the winner. Humans have lost their ability to deal with complex plots and multidimensional characters, and if the world is going to go down the toilet we might as well find a way to cash in on it."
"I think I'm going to be sick," said Quentin.
"No, you're going to be super sick, Mr. Star Dragon cause you're a su-per hero!" trumpeted Brotzy, patting Quentin hard on the backside.
Quentin had only one possible response. And he did it all over the floor.