|This story is set in the Tales From the Blind Pig universe, in which an extraterrestrial disease called Martian Flu has unusual effects on a significant number of its victims -- Stein's Chronic Accelerated Biomorphic Syndrome, SCABS for short. When the 'Flu showed up, every nation on Earth got hit -- but some countries were hit harder than others...
Go here for more information on the setting.
©2004 Wolfshadow -- all rights reserved
The sun is shining between gaps in the clouds, a teasing promise of warmth that's not going to happen this early spring day. It's the wettest and coldest spring I've seen in a long time, and it looks like another sleet storm could erupt at any moment. The residents of this neighborhood pay little attention to the weather, however, as they go about their daily routines. It's the same story practically everywhere: The pressures of everyday existence drive people to hide in their own little corners of the world, where they have some illusion of control. You'd think that when something really out of the ordinary jogs them from mulling over their daily concerns, they would realize that control can be an illusion. However, the mind is well adapted to block out what doesn't fit in a person's perception of reality. And once past, the out-of-the-ordinary can be rationalized and made trivial. I've witnessed the process at least a hundred times, mostly in connection with me. Over the years, I've learned that I qualify as one of those things that attack at the boundaries of what is considered ordinary. I think that cop in Juarez explained it best: "People who have been changed by the Martian Flu we have seen, and they don't cause as much of a reaction anymore. You, however, look like you spent too much time in the grab bag of Darwin!"
I guess that's true. I'm nine feet plus tall, and look like a human/lion crossbreed with jaguar spots and wolf ears and muzzle, with a wolf fur 'mane' to boot. From what I've heard, that's possibly the strangest mix anyone has seen. The half-inch-wide strip of white fur that slashes across my eye as it cuts along its way from my left ear down to the tip of my nose, probably doesn't help much either. No matter how hard I try to act non-threatening, the very sight of me usually causes startled and even paranoid reactions. I've gotten those reactions plenty of times on my trip through this city. I'm trying to find the hospital here that deals with victims of the Martian Flu. While not perilous in a physical sense, so far, it hasn't done much for me on the social end. Heh, I'm surprised I haven't had to explain my presence to the cops yet, especially with the results of my attempts to get directions from anyone. I'm beginning to think that screaming and running are the national greeting now.
The best directions I've received, from the one time someone stuck around long enough to answer me in a civilized manner, were to a bar called The Blind Pig. My informant -- a low grade wildebeest morph (or Scab, or whatever the hell they're called around here) -- nervously told me that some of the regulars are employees of the hospital; at the moment, I was finding his directions fairly inadequate. With my looks, I should remember not to ask directions from prey morphs. For too many of them, the need to get away from the big thing with pointy teeth makes them give the quickest responses they can, just to shorten the experience. Attempts to clarify those directions have been futile so far.
Over the last few blocks, the looks I've been getting from the odd morph turn to suspicious stares when they realize I'm not interested in eating them. Asking norms isn't much better; their responses end up being short and fairly curt. Every so often, I even get a few snide remarks yelled my way, or mothers ushering their children away from the "big, funny looking kitty" before I can even get a word out. For some reason the kids don't seem to be afraid, but if even one adult is present, well, let's just say that riots have started over less.
Okay, there's the grocery store that Wildebeest said I should turn right at. I guess that means I'm close. I turn right and contemplate whether the whole episode is really worth the effort. Considering the reactions I've gotten from anyone other than friends since my return, I'm beginning to have my doubts. I could be assuming too much, but I really am starting to wonder if I've been away from the U.S. too long. It's either that or I've changed so much that I can't fit into my native society anymore. Heck, I'm not even sure my information has any relevance up here. While I'm certain that news from south of the border is almost impossible to get here, that situation also works in reverse. For all I know, my info could be moot. The doctors in Louisiana were interested, but so what? Doctors are always 'interested', even if the patient has the chicken pox.
My few friends left at the University told me that the hospital here has a staff that knows more about the Martian Flu and its permutations than anyone, and the information I have should be of help in their research. The University doctors wouldn't let me leave until I promised I'd at least try to get the data to Dr. Stein or his associates. They informed me that if I didn't do my best to do so, the fact that I was back in the United States would find its way to some people who would be "very interested to hear it". I didn't want to find out if the threat was real or not, especially when the Dean said this arrangement would get full backing from the University. No details either, just that they would know if I didn't go through with it. I really don't think the threats were necessary -- my feelings of guilt alone would have done the trick -- but I guess they figured what I have to say, and what the Flu did to me, is important enough to need a little insurance.
I hope my story is of some use to Stein's people. There are a few cases in Central America they might want to hear about. Heck, maybe my story will even give them some insight that escapes me. Oh well, I guess it can't hurt to pass the info on. The main thing I dread is that Stein will likely want to give me a very thorough physical. The exam I got at LSU Medical Center still makes me shudder! I didn't know they had that many instruments and probes, and this hospital can't help but have even more, since it specializes in the condition. Well, I've been through worse. Better to concentrate on the goal, now that it's so close.
The sign over the door to the bar beckons to me when I finally catch sight of it. I'm not really expecting my presence to be accepted much better here than anywhere else I've been on my way through town. The friendliest place I've found in this city so far is the hotel my wife Sasha and I are staying at. Doubt almost overcomes me, but then my conscience reminds me that if my information can help even one person, maybe I can make up for the debacle in Guatemala. Sighing in resignation, I make my way toward the bar. Hopefully, I'll at least be able to find better directions to the hospital here, or someone I can give my information to. The less time I have to spend in the city, the better. My guard is already up about as far as it will go as it is. Wariness has become a way of life since my change, and the noise and the smells of the city are going to take a lot of getting used to after spending years in the jungle. Right now they are not helping my disposition much; the sooner I get back to my wife, the better.
Out of habit, I survey the surroundings before I walk the final couple hundred meters to the bar entrance. There's been too many times when my ass has been saved by knowing where all the exits are. As I scan for escape routes, my attention is drawn to what has to be the largest SUV on the planet. It's got to be a custom job; there is no way in creation a car company could make a profit on a monstrosity like that. Heck, back in my younger days, there would have been three or four environmental activist groups that would have gone apoplectic at the very sight of that thing! Yeah, with its collection of obviously non-standard accessories, it's definitely custom-built. For instance, that's one hell of a security system it's got. Suddenly, a large, burly man with a crew cut and a black T-shirt and pants comes around the front and begins trying to force his way into the vehicle. From the breeze coming down the street I can tell he's had a few cervesas to give him courage. He's got a black baseball bat? Gee, drunk thugs with matching ensemble -- I guess things are more sophisticated up here.
The bendejo is completely unaware of my presence, so I wait a minute and try to size up exactly what is going on. I have to consider the risks if I should interfere. This guy could actually be the owner of the thing, as unlikely as that seems at the moment. Maybe getting into the vehicle has been more trouble than it's worth and the guy has finally snapped? He mutters something like: "That goddamn cat thinks he can send me up the fuckin' river, well, he got another think comin'..." The wind gets stronger, giving me more information on the guy's mood. Man, the stench of anger and hatred is worse than that 'working on the alcohol' smell his body is giving off. Drunk and irate, he apparently wants to cover all implications of the word 'pissed'. As he tries the handle on the door on the driver's side, he readies his bat for a swing. Gee, the door's locked. As he releases the handle, a series of faint electronic beeps emanate from the SUV, followed by a low pitched hum.
Captain Oblivious there doesn't even seem to notice the sounds. Heck, he doesn't even notice the incessant ENTRY DENIAL SYSTEM ARMED message that the computer inside is now monotonously repeating. Score three for my SCABS-heightened hearing. Frustrated, the thug swats the driver's side mirror, which snaps off at the base; then he pulls back for another swing. Boy, is he ever surprised when his bat rebounds harmlessly off the driver's side window and hits him in the forehead. This could get comical really quick, in a Three Stooges sort of way. Once the show is over, maybe I'll go find dinner, just to keep the cliché alive. Rubbing the knot on his forehead, the thug then mumbles "passenger door," and struts around to the other side of the vehicle. Okay, this should be interesting. He might find his next action to be a shocking experience...
When thug-boy reaches for the passenger side door handle there's a large flash, followed by the acrid smell of ozone. Blinking the flash motes from my eyes, it's all I can do not to laugh. The guy's lying on the ground and not moving. Maybe that'll change his mind about attempted vandalism. I head over to see if the clown is still alive. As I bend over him to see if he's breathing, he gasps for air and his eyes fly open. His eyes get bigger as he realizes what's looming over him. Next, he swings the bat at my head! He isn't really in a position to do much harm, lying flat on his back and all. Still, it's good that cats have fast reflexes. I catch the bat in mid-swing as I grab his shirt collar. Pulling him up so that we're face to face I say: "Friend, that was Number Two on the top ten list of Stupid Things To Do. Want to try for Number One?"
I guess the hint was too subtle for him, or maybe he's just naturally brain-dead. He screams: "Goddamned animal!" Then he spits in my face.
"And that was number one!" I snarl. Baring my fangs, I give him a deep-throated growl as I tighten my grip on both the bat and his shirt. It's a good thing I've had a lot of practice keeping a firm grip on my rage, because it reduces the odds of my doing something to this moron I really will regret later. I break the bat in half with a very forceful twist of my wrist. Upon seeing this, the guy's shirt finally gives up the fight to hold him aloft and he runs down the street screaming in sheer terror. All he leaves behind him are a shredded shirt, the odor of fear and that of an unexpected bathroom break. I shout after him: "And your audition for the Stupid Human Tricks segment was going so well, too!"
As I bend over to collect the artifacts left behind by the thug, a wave of pain reminds me that I took a hit. My arm is killing me; breaking the bat must have done a number on it, because my overactive healing process is already kicking in. What's that thing made of? No wooden bat should have done so much damage to me. Inspecting the pieces, I see a layer of wood around a metal core -- half-inch rebar from the looks of it. Christ! I already knew I was stronger than a normal human, but I didn't think I could tear steel! Considering how my hand and arm feel right now, I probably don't want to do it again either. Damn this hurts! Trying to distract myself from the pain as my body heals, I pick up the broken side mirror for later deposit with the vehicle's owner. With a final check to make sure I didn't forget anything, or that the guy isn't coming back with friends or a gun, I take the trinkets I just picked up and head for the front door of the Blind Pig Gin Mill.
The door has a few handbills on it, including one advertising a local music group called the Strikebreakers. Hmm... an all-morph band... that could be interesting. Looks like no local dates soon though. Oh well. The moment I open the door my nose gets hit by the odors of the bar's many recent patrons. I can never get used to these moments when my nose gets flooded like this, especially after having gotten somewhat used to the smell of exhaust, trash and who knows what else you find in a metropolitan area. The conflict between two different sets of odors is almost tangible at moments like this. The sense of smell is a wonderful thing; appearances can be disguised, but odors are much more honest. When my nose gets flooded, however, it mainly serves to cause anxiety until I can get the smells sorted out. Added to the pain, my mind is starting to get a bit overloaded with sensory information. Shaking my head in an attempt to clear out my sinuses, I step into the bar. The boisterous and jovial sounds typical of a bar waft out as I pass over the threshold. The feeling generated by these sounds does a good job of helping to clear my head and calm me down a bit. That is, until I notice that things have quieted down since someone actually got a good look at me. I seem to have performed another of my show-stopping entrances. Joy.
Before attempting to let things get back to normal as quickly as possible, I ignore the stares I am getting and scan the room so that I have an idea of what I'm walking into. While not exactly crowded, the bar seems to be quite popular. A few of the tables are standing room only, and at least three of the booths have occupants, including one of the largest equine morphs I've ever seen. I suppose he might be the owner of that monstrosity outside, he sure is big enough to use it. Eh, too much speculation on my part. I'm sure the bartender here would know. That's odd... The horse is trying not to stare, but it's obvious he's very interested in me. Wow, real honest to goodness interest and not immediate suspicion and fear. That's rare. Continuing my once-over of the room, there's exactly one customer at the bar, a cheetah morph. He glares at me, and casually flexes his claws ever so slightly as I look back at him. It is almost as if he can tell how tense I am, and here I thought I had enough practice being in a defensive posture that I could hide it. I guess the city really is getting to me if I slip that much. Well, if he has something to say, I'm sure he will let me know.
I step further into the room and stop in shock as I notice the largest bovine Scab I have ever seen watching me from behind the bar. The auroch morph seems to be making some sort of attempt at communication by sign language. "Sorry, sir, but I really have no idea what you are trying to tell me. I never had time to learn sign language. Mayan hieroglyphics I can read, fingers I can't, well at least most finger gestures, that is."
Nodding, he grabs a notepad and begins to write. He hands the pad to me when he is finished; it says [WHAT CAN I DO YOU FOR?]
"Well, first, whoever owns that deuce and a half disguised as an SUV, he should know that his behemoth had a visitor. Doesn't look like the guy will be returning anytime soon, not until he cleans himself up a bit, anyway." I smile and put the souvenirs of the incident on the bar. As I do, several bones move back into place with a near-audible 'click'. I wince, but hey, I've had worse. The bartender looks at me in puzzlement.
I wave his concern away and continue: "Second, I've got some information that I need to pass on to someone named 'Dr. Stein' at the hospital here, and I was wondering if I could get some directions. After I have a drink, of course," I finish with a smile. I catch movement out of the corner of my eye. The lunchtime patrons, who were beginning to return to their conversations, turn their heads back to me, wondering why I need to know this. I can see some accompanying skepticism, likely based on the fact that they don't know my intentions. Apparently, things might not be as relaxed in this neck of the woods as I thought. Or maybe I am over-analyzing things again. Could be it's just my bizarre appearance again. Meanwhile, the cheetah morph begins inspecting the items I placed on the bar. After about two seconds, he disappears in a blur and the door to the bar slams open.
I feel a tap on my shoulder and turn as the bartender hands his notepad to me: [MIGHT BE ABLE TO SAVE YOU A TRIP. SOMEONE FROM THE HOSPITAL SHOULD BE IN LATER.]
"Would it be okay if I waited?" I ask. "I've already been over half of this city looking for this place and I could use a break. A drink would be nice, too. Maybe some food with it, but the drink will do for now."
"No. My metabolism works overtime to neutralize the stuff, so it's a waste of money for me. It isn't that I don't want a beer or something, but how much fun is alcohol without the side effects?" I smile and the barkeep nods. "So... How much for a Coke?" At this point, the door slams closed and there's a rush of air. When I turn back to the bar, the cheetah morph is back in his old seat.
[SUGAR?] is the barkeep's next note. The question makes sense; this disease, SCABS, can really mess up a person's dietary needs.
"Fine by me. I never really liked the taste of most chemical sugar substitutes, and believe me they didn't get any better after this" -- pointing to my face -- "happened. Thanks, mister..?"
He hands me another note, [NAME'S DONNIE], with a printed menu of soft drinks.
One of the flavors catches my eye. "Rhubarb! What, did someone get bored at the company and decide that normal and cherry cola weren't enough?"
This 'Donnie' shrugs and hands over a glass full of cola. I take a sip and my gag reflex sets in. "Gah! What is this stuff?"
The new note reads, [WHAT YOU SAID]. The bovine looks serious enough...
"You've got to be kidding me -- rhubarb!? Please, just plain old cola." I hand back the glass and mumble: "Rhubarb... Gag me with a two by four... the damn spoon ain't big enough for that... Sorry for my reaction, but the thought of rhubarb-flavored anything makes me want to Technicolor yawn, to use an outdated phrase. Heck, I thought that blue stuff that Pepsi tried to pawn off on us years ago was bad!"
[THEY DID ALL-U.S. TASTE TEST. THIS WON]
I shake my head in disbelief. "What next? Raw meat flavored cola? Actually, that might not be so bad..." This invites a few remarks from a table occupied with lupine morphs about what flavors they would like, including cat, and a good deal of laughter. I smile at the lupines around the table and return to my conversation with Donnie.
As he draws another soda from the tap behind the bar and hands it to me, I say, "You're alright, Donnie. Call me Wolfshadow. I know it doesn't really fit, but I like how it sounds, and it keeps people with grudges off my back. Nice to meet you." I shake hands with Donnie and pay for the drink. He stares and holds up the money I paid with -- a 10-peso bill. "Aw, man..." I reach back into my pocket for some U.S. money. I've got my friends in Louisiana to thank for it. After being considered missing and later declared dead, not to mention a governmental investigation, my former bank account isn't exactly accessible at the moment. I apologize and trade a U.S. fiver for the Mexican bill.
This one tastes like cherry cola, which is okay, and I wander over to a large booth near the equine morph, mainly because it's the only one left that will fit someone my size. I slowly flex my hand, just to see if everything is back in place as the pain finally ebbs away. As I pass the door to a room with a much used pool table, I catch a glimpse of hooves sticking out from under the table. It's none of my business. If that guy thinks staring at wads of ancient gum stuck to the bottom of a pool table is more comfortable than a couch, or even a bed, who am I to criticize. After depositing my ratty backpack and jacket in the booth, I sit down and pull an older model compact disc player out of one of the pack's outside cargo pockets. I slip in a CD, and start to daydream while the music drowns out the other noises in the bar.
After a couple songs I haven't heard in many years, I notice the cheetah morph is staring at me, now with a pained expression on his face. Whatever his game is, I'd rather not play. Hm... Maybe I should try and catch up on my technical journals? Then again, maybe not. If Spot over there is as touchy as he seems, that might just set him off. Okay, what about television? Every bar in the country used to have at least one, and things can't have changed that much, can they? As I scan the room, my attention is immediately drawn to the mule morph glaring at me from the pool room. Wasn't he sleeping under the table? Oh, right. I forgot that with my ears located where they are, and with headphones designed for human ears, everyone can hear what I am playing. Great... The entire bar just got an earful of my taste in tunes. Right now it's Seven Bridges Road by the Eagles. I wouldn't have thought those silky-smooth harmonies would cause that much of a reaction, so why does Spot over there look even more pained than before? Quickly turning off the player, I look up to see the mule morph incessantly tapping his hoof/fingers on the door frame as he stands there. Joy. One more person not happy with my presence. He is apparently not happy to be woken up. It's tough for a guy like me to look sheepish, but I manage as I give the mule an apologetic shrug. I turn off the player and take off the headphones, ready to accept my rebuke.
Instead, the whole exchange brings a roar of laughter from the table with the lupines at the sight of a pissed-off mule backing me down. The mule morph mumbles something under his breath about people who won't let others sleep, then tells me that if I want to hear good music, I should wait until later when he's playing and goes back into the pool room. Chalking the whole incident up to experience, I resume my search and finally find the TV. There's actually a baseball game on. At least that still seems to be the same. Wow. Winter leagues in the Caribbean have gotten popular enough to be a warmup for the regular season? Cool. Looks like some sort of playoff game with all the fanfare the announcers are dishing out. I watch for a bit, but it's one of those pitching duels with little action, so... Looking away from the TV to scan the room once more, I notice that there is a discussion occurring at the table full of lupine morphs. Every so often the looks come back around to me. Heh... I'm sure that someone will come over when their curiosity finally overcomes their reluctance to 'intrude'. Oh, and Spot doesn't seem interested in me anymore. Now, maybe, I can catch up on a few articles without stepping on any toes.
It will take a bit of work to get up to speed on the new theories I have missed, both the good and the bad ones. Heck, just from the first article, I can tell it's going to be a struggle because the author's theory plays fast and loose with reality. Ancient contact with aliens... I shake my head in amazement. While I like to believe that the universe is too big not to have alien life forms out there, all the aliens would need is one look at what goes on down here to make them wary of visiting. It would be enough to either scare them away, or give them sitcom material for centuries. Why would someone/thing from another world want to risk being stuck to the end of a spear in an attempt to communicate with people who would have no clue what he/she/it was saying?
About the time I got engrossed in an interesting little article, and a few subtle glances in the direction of the still-irritated cheetah, I notice a movement out of the corner of my eye. Someone just sat down at the other side of the booth. I look up to see a somewhat theatrically dressed wolf morph grinning at me. "Greetings and felicitations," he says. "Welcome to the Blind Pig Gin Mill, sir!"
Theatrical manners, too. I smile and nod, "Call me Wolfshadow. Nice to meet you."
"Likewise. I pray you forgive my intrusion, but your little conversation with Donnie, and your choice of music, piqued my interest. Could it be that you are a tad older than you look? Personally, I happen to have some experience with the times that you referenced, and it would be pleasant to reminisce with someone from that bygone era."
Friendly contact? I don't often get that, and can hardly believe it. Even so, I'm very glad to put the journal aside. "Certainly, sir! What would you like to talk about? I do miss those days. Although, my view of them might be slightly warped given that I spent much of that time in what was then West Germany, where my father was stationed, and probably missed a few of the trends. I would love to talk about the past, though. The past is one of the most intriguing aspects of my former field of employment." He responds that he goes by Wanderer, which is immediately followed by one of the lupines yelling over something about "uncle puppy" or something like that. The last comment causes my new acquaintance to look embarrassed for a moment.
"Never mind them," he retorts with a smile. "Too many 'business lunch' specials, you know." After a few more barbs of humor are sent back and forth, he shakes his head, turns back to me. We chat about the best and worst of '80s music and feature films, among other (many other) things...
We're about thirty minutes into the conversation when things start going downhill. I catch a blur off to my left and hear, "Gonna get to the point any time before closing, Wanderer?" This voice isn't quite like anything I've ever heard before; it almost sounds like the bastard offspring of a sound-effects lab and a voice synthesizer. Despite the tonal quality, however, his point is very comprehensible. I snap my head around and see the cheetah morph from the bar leaning against the booth partition. He's trying to act unconcerned, almost absentmindedly sharpening his claws with a file. However, from the smell of anger-tinged wariness emanating from him and the hard stare I am getting, I can see that all it would take is one false move to make things go bad in a hurry.
I mumble under my breath a question about why there has to be one in every crowd. I can tell he hears because his ears just laid back and the scent of anger is getting stronger. Not good. "Look, buddy, put those things away. I'm sure you could do a fair amount of damage, but on me, the effort would be wasted and might result in consequences neither of us want."
Clearly, the cheetah either doesn't believe me, or doesn't care. I'd explain further, but he interrupts: "So you got armor or healing or whatever. That's nice. Want to field test it? All you gotta do is start something. Anything."
Before I can reply, Wanderer sighs and tells the cheetah, "Jubatus, will you kindly refrain from putting your oar in?" Then the wolf gives me an apologetic look. "You'll have to excuse the lad. While his concern for the safety of others is admirable, there are times when it can be a trifle... excessive."
"Better too much than not enough!" the big cat, Jubatus, insists. "Sure, this guy could be one of the few genuine multi-species animorphs on record, and maybe he could have spent the last 30-odd years stuck in some Godforsaken backwater where nobody's ever heard of one of the most respected SCABS researchers on the face of the planet. Then again, this guy could also be a Humans First thug, temporarily polymorphed into a form guaranteed to pique Stein's curiosity, and he could be hanging around until he's close enough to give the doc an armor-piercing, .50 caliber message. I know which way I'd bet!"
'Humans First' I've heard a few stories about since I have been back, none of them good. I've heard a few stories about Dr. Stein as well, none of them bad. Putting the pieces together, the cheetah's worries aren't quite as paranoid I'd first thought. "Actually, I did spend the last 30-odd years in a Godforsaken backwater. Believe it or not, I was in a remote part of Guatemala when the major outbreak of Martian Flu started, and it took a while for things to settle down. If half of what I've heard about Dr. Stein is true, I should be damned grateful to him that the U.S. doesn't treat people like us the same way Nazi Germany treated Jews!" I sigh, sadly, and continue: "I understand some of your concern for your friend's safety. You aren't the first to think all I want to do is kill. Well, I don't. For your information, I have had enough killing, even if it was in self defense." I look over at the cheetah. "Of course you wouldn't know that. You weren't there at the time. Or for the months of nightmares afterward either. You ever have to kill anyone? Believe me, it is not a pleasurable experience. Especially if you have to look them in the eyes when you do it.
"To somewhat address your concerns, we didn't get any U.S. news down there. At least nothing more that what we could scratch together from scanty radio reports, when the radio worked. It's kind of hard to get information on the modern world when you're avoiding warlords and slaver parties in the jungle, especially when at least one of those parties is specifically assigned to hunt you down. So please, forgive me if my knowledge base of current American events isn't up to your standards." I might be good at keeping from getting really pissed, but Spot has just about blown through those defenses... "As for field testing my 'armor or healing or whatever'? Been there, done that. And the testers were very professional and thorough. If you really feel the need to add your testing criteria to the mix, get it over with. Otherwise, we can let it drop, or I can leave, if that would make you feel better."
After a few seconds where I struggle to shove painful memories back into their closet in my mind, I continue speaking. "Look: All I want is to give the doctor some information that will hopefully help him in his research. As far as I know, he likely can't get this information anywhere else. I didn't want to cause trouble, but since that is now moot, maybe I should just leave some contact info behind and try again after I figure out how to convince you of my good intentions."
"My car knows all about your 'good intentions'," the cheetah sneers.
Okay, enough is enough. "I didn't break your mirror, Spot. Someone else did, as you might actually know if you used your nose --"
The cheetah doesn't let me even finish my sentence. "Perp's name is Carl Benton. Back in '36, he hacked at my brake lines in Brooklyn. I took his ass to court. He got 10 years, made parole four months ago, currently lives in Pennsylvania. He brushes with Crest Magna, uses Gillette's allegedly 'unscented' shaving cream, washes his clothes with Tide detergent, ate at Burger King sometime within the past few hours, has a gutful of Bud Light, and his liver's working up the courage to go on strike. Judging by the strength of his scent on it, the bat belongs to him; you touched the pieces, probably within the last half-hour. I can't tell whether you or the bat touched the mirror first, but both did, also within the last half-hour. Feel free to tell me how any of that is inconsistent with the hypothesis that you and Benton are working together."
After that little exhibition, I just sit there, too embarrassed to say anything. I guess my audition for Stupid Morph Tricks is going well...
This would be a good time to cut my losses. As I start collecting my stuff, I hear a deep voice say, "Jubatus, I think we can afford to hear him out. Back off a bit please." This latest voice belongs to that oversized equine morph. The cheetah -- Jubatus -- looks a bit disappointed as he retreats, grabs an unoccupied chair and places himself in a direct line between me and the big horse, resuming his hard stare at me once he is in position. The equine morph looks at me with a mixture of curiosity and annoyance playing across his face. He says, "Look, Mr... Wolfshadow, is it?" He pauses until I turn back to look at him. "I happen to know Dr. Stein personally. Go ahead and tell us the information that you want to give to him and if we feel it will be of some use to him, we'll pass it on. Will that satisfy your concerns, Jubatus?"
The cheetah says "Fine," and continues to stare at me. Every once in a while his hand blurs in a circle, almost like he was toying with a mouse at some incredible speed. It reminds me of a hummingbird morph I had to deal with in Mexico. I'd say Spot here has the edge, speed-wise, but not by much. The bird was human sized, feral and very territorial. Avoiding him was a pain. Literally.
I regret my bluntness and lack of tact, but what's done is done. The patrons in the bar, while not as hostile as the cheetah morph, now have a tinge of suspicion as I realize Jubatus' words have hit home with them. At this point, I'm really not so sure I can fit in to society anymore. South of the border, life was a general struggle for survival. Up here, it seems that the problem is more uncertainty about who is friend or foe -- maybe not such a good exchange. I get the feeling that forming any semblance of a normal life here is going to take a lot of work...
Looking first at Wanderer and then the equine, I shift my gaze to the people in the bar and apologize. "Sorry. My decades of life out of the loop have definitely dulled my grasp of interpersonal relations. It wasn't my intent to cause such strife, and I hope you can forgive my part in the confrontation. I'll try to do this as quickly as possible and then get out from under your fur, so to speak." This has really been a strange five minutes. Several things nag at my mind. Why did Jubatus back down so quickly? Even after this short exposure to him, he doesn't strike me as someone who gives up easily, or at all. And why is the horse morph trying to conceal the fact that he's hanging on my every word? Never mind; it's something for my subconscious to work on while I talk.
I return to the booth, remove my pack, sit down, and pull out a small stack of CD-ROM discs. The CDs hold the interviews that my wife and I had given to my friends, per their request, for their attempt to help us get past the last 30 years and resume our lives. "Alright; I'll try to give you the Reader's Digest Condensed Version of my story. If you want more details, they're on these CDs. I'll just hang on to the medical reports until I find out if this really matters to anyone else. Oh, and tell Dr. Stein that once my wife and I find a place to live, we'll be available to answer any other questions he's got. Until then you can send messages through the phone number on the front of this CD. I'm fairly certain that someone at the hospital will want to do physical exams on me and of my wife, but we can discuss that later." I'm stalling; it's not easy to tell your life's story to strangers. This is probably going to take more time than I want, anyway, given the detail I like to go into. I hand Wanderer the CDs and spend a few seconds organizing my thoughts...
First off, you should know I think I've got proof that there's more than one strain of the Martian Flu or whatever you call the virus here. In Central America they call it "the disease" or "Quetzalcoatl's revenge", interchangeably. As best I can tell, at least two similar strains have been around during most of recorded history. Most everyone here has heard stories of part-man and part-animal 'gods', or humans who can change form at will? I think these 'gods' were normal humans who came down with an early version of SCABS, and the tales told about them by their contemporaries and more recent generations resulted in the myths each culture has.
My experiences have helped me develop a theory about ancient mythologies: The human imagination doesn't come up with anything that doesn't have some kind of factual basis. There's a lot of stories of half-human, half-animal creatures; you find them among the Kalahari Bushmen, in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and in several Native American cultures, to name a few. Heck, the Roman poet Ovid wrote an entire book of these legends! So yeah, I think the Martian Flu is old news.
What proof of this do I have? For one, every time I look in the mirror I see evidence that I was affected by something that either gave the Martian Flu a foundation to build on, or influenced its progress on me. It might have something to do with a couple of sites I visited about when the outbreak started. Let me put it this way: if what I say isn't true, then ask yourselves, how many Martian Flu victims have you seen with characteristics of three different species, let alone two different genii --
"Genie? I'd sure like to meet one!" says a youthful ursine Scab. The pack of wolf morphs takes this as a cue; their table erupts with laughter, they start howling the I Dream of Genie theme. Badly.
After the noise dies down, following another pained look from Spot -- this time at the lupines instead of me, thank God -- the horse chimes in with, "They're not common. Roughly one in eight thousand, depending on the qualifying criteria you accept." It takes me a second to realize that he's answering my rhetorical question. At least, I thought it was a rhetorical question. He goes on: "It's a pity Sue Carter isn't here; she's a bi-kingdom hybrid, plant and animal both!" I blink in surprise. Things have gotten weirder in the States than I thought...
"This Sue Carter sounds like what the Greeks would call a Dryad," I reply. "Thank you for the example that supports my contention about truth being a basis for mythology. I suppose you don't have a problem with my being old enough to have seen Miami Vice in its first run either?"
"Not at all," says the horse. "We call it chronomorphism."
"You think it's a case of me controlling or changing time somehow?" I ask. "Interesting concept, but the doctors who examined me in Louisiana told me that isn't what's happening in my or my wife's case. They used some sort of torture device disguised as a Geiger counter on us, and it didn't register a damn thing. After they took a skin culture though, they decided that my metabolism somehow replaces all of the damaged cells and other time ravaged parts. They said that there is no periodicity involved in the process. Basically, if it's broke, my body fixes it, right then and there. My response to them, to use another outdated phrase, was: Like, tell me something I don't know, already.
"Be that as it may, in Central America I've seen things stranger than my healing ability, and even my looks, although probably not as strange as Dr. Stein could relate if he were here." Okay... did someone just giggle? What did I miss? "Some were possibly even stranger than a dryad. You don't believe me, do you? Okay, I'll give you two examples. First, about 10 years after the initial outbreak, we met this guy in Tampico, Mexico. He was 30 when he caught the flu. His body had reverted to age 15 when he had recovered. From there he started aging three times faster than anyone else. Five years later, he reaches the apparent chronological age of 30, then, on the anniversary of the day he caught the flu, he reverts to age 15 again. We met him near the end of his second time through the cycle.
"Second, we met a family in San Cristobal, or what was left of the city after the rioting and fights between would-be warlords died down."
"Warlords? In a major city?" It's the cheetah, whose disbelief is obvious. "You've gotta be kidding!"
"No joke, Spot. Warlords -- but not in a city, they were trying to take all of them -- and rioting, too. I don't think you understand: This was not the United States! Things fell apart, during what people below the border now call 'los Años Quebrados', the Broken Years. Many of the governments down there were not as strong as ours, and lacked many of the resources we have. Events were worse there with how virulent the disease was. For a long time there was no police or any real government south of Veracruz, and my wife and I were in the middle of it. It was every man for himself in that region for close to fifteen years, and we didn't dare stay in one place too long. Your reaction, here in 'civilization', is fairly typical of what I've gotten since my return. During the Broken Years, people got out their guns and machetes at the first sight of us.
"Anyway: As I was saying, this family in San Cristobal told us that their matriarch was in her mid-nineties when she came down with the disease. As a result of the disease, she was aging backwards... fast. She would lose a year around every six months. And to make matters worse for her, she was losing her memories as she regressed. She was totally convinced it was the year in which she'd first been her current age. We never did find out how she ended up, but I hope she was caught in a temporal loop as well.
"And now that you understand a bit of what it was like down there, let me give you the rest of the story..."
It all began after I graduated from college with Ph.D. in Archaeology around the year 1999. That's right, before Martian Flu and SCABS. I got a pretty decent job at my alma mater in Louisiana, teaching Archaeology and doing field research in Guatemala. While I was earning my degree, I also got to know Sasha, another archaeology grad student at the university, whose specialty was Egypt. After her graduation, the university gave her a teaching contract as well, basically getting the two of us for almost the price of one. In April 2003, Sasha came back to the U.S. from her fieldwork in Egypt to give a paper at the World Archaeology meetings, but was excited about a new find at her dig site, so she couldn't concentrate on anything else. She let one of her graduate students give the paper and spent her free time transcribing her notes about the discovery.
The day after the meetings opened, Sasha made me skip a particularly interesting session on the iconography of Mayan ball courts to have a long lunch. She'd seemed cranky ever since I met her at the airport, almost like she was dealing with a hangover or cold or something. I figured she just wasn't re-acclimated to Louisiana yet. Wrong -- not that the real cause of her discomfort would be known until much later. Anyway, I was bending over backward to do what I could to make her feel better, so I really couldn't say no. During that lunch, she claimed to have found the location of a sacred site named the "Well of The Souls," or something like that, given the vagaries involved in translating from one language to another. The "well's" existence had only been hinted at before then. She capped lunch off by handing me a plane ticket and inviting me to come and see if it was real for myself. Figuring I would at least get a free sightseeing trip out of the deal, I arranged to return to my own project a week late, and accompanied her to Egypt.
The morning after arriving at her site, Sasha led me into a cave that had been heavily modified by the ancient Egyptians. Given the very good condition of the carvings, you could tell that the entrance had only been recently excavated. The desert sand had done well at protecting the text from the elements. An ornate capstone had been removed from the entrance and placed on the ground next to it. About 500 feet or so in, the cave opened up into a large, ornately carved, chamber. The artwork there was astounding! Being sheltered from the outside world, there was no erosion to be found. It was the most lifelike art I've ever seen, depicting animals and human/animal mixes in various combinations. In the center of the chamber was a pool of water about 25 feet across, crystal clear, and too deep to see the bottom. I was just about to remark on how she had hit the archaeological jackpot, when with a playful, almost catlike, grin on her face, she pushed me into the pool. The water was ice cold, and since I was about to say something, I got a mouthful of water when I plunged below the surface.
Coughing and hacking for the next few minutes after I surfaced, I caught my breath and asked if she was going to join me. She said she'd already been in the pool, before coming back to the States. She would not jump in, because the glyphs in the cave held a warning that you should only enter the pool once, 'or else'. I told her it was a nice excuse, and pulled myself out of the water. My first indication that it might not be an excuse came a few seconds later. She made a beeline for the cave entrance as I was getting out of the water, emphatically stating that she knew me well enough to get out of there before I could return the favor. Later that evening, after the work had stopped and we Americans had a few beers, I started to feel sick to my stomach and achy all over. Sasha told me that the same thing happened to her, blaming it on something in the food since she got over it by morning. She sent me off to our tent to rest, with a wink, indicating that there might be more in store later...
I don't know how long I slept, but I was awakened by a great deal of shouting. My ears rang and I felt like I had one hell of a hangover. It was all I could do to reach a sitting position. I sat at the edge of the cot wondering how two beers could cause such a headache, and trying to decide how I was going to muster the strength to stand up. After about five minutes with nothing to show for the effort, an Egyptian army corporal with a machine gun came into the tent and solved the problem for me. In badly broken English, he forced me, at gunpoint, to get up and stagger out of the tent. Sasha was a few yards from me arguing with an Egyptian military officer in Farsi, while in the background, the camp was being torn apart by a bunch of soldiers. There were also at least four military personnel guarding the cave, with two others forcing the capstone back into place.
Sasha and walked over to me. "The minister of antiquities is taking over the site, and we have 24 hours to leave the country. Once they search through our personal belongings, they'll escort us to the airport in Cairo. Nice to see you up and about, by the way. We were worried with how sick you were yesterday." I asked her what she meant by 'yesterday', and she said I'd been in bed with a fever since she sent me to our tent. Her explanation finished, she threw up her hands in frustration. "I can't believe this! They're even keeping our research notes for some reason. Nobody will explain why this is happening!" Sighing in resignation, she rubbed her hand across my cheek, turned around and headed back to our tent. "All I can get out of them is something about a security matter to do with the U.S. and that there is a 'threat to our safety'. Well, we might as well pack our stuff..."
Hassim, the camp representative for the government, came over after Sasha had gone into the tent and escorted me a short way away. He told me that the expulsion was nothing personal. He let me know that once the "security matter" in the U.S. was taken care of, Sasha and I, if I wanted, would be welcome to work in any other civilian location next field season. This site, however, was off limits and being placed under control of the military. The site's religious implications were too dangerous for its presence to be made public, so the Egyptian government was covering up the site's existence. They were mainly concerned that the region's Muslim and Christian communities might declare the place blasphemous and destroy it.
Needing a reason to get us out of the country, the Antiquities minister had seized on a small newspaper account of a strange, incurable illness in the United States. He used it as an excuse to send every American archaeological team in the country home, so that there wouldn't be any speculation targeted at us. This way, nobody would need to investigate what we were doing that got us thrown out. Hassim then related that to help smooth things over, he had been given permission to extend our deadline to leave the country for a few days. We would be given a whirlwind tour of the Pyramids, Valley of the Kings and the museum in Cairo, including the back rooms where the really interesting stuff was kept. All the while, we would be escorted by the minister's personal representative, namely himself.
Hassim had also arranged for us to keep sanitized copies of our notes, to be returned as we boarded the plane. Any attempt to publish them, however, would cause us to lose any rights to dig in Egypt in the future. And if the threat of pulling our permits wasn't bad enough, he also implied that there might also be a court case against us, the publisher of the information and the University. This was the whole carrot and stick cliché at its finest. He apologized, again, for what was happening and for both of us getting sick during our stay in the country. When I asked what he meant by 'both', he stated that Sasha had been sick for a couple days after she arrived. She also got sick again about a week prior to returning to the states for the meetings. Thanking Hassim for the explanation, I went back into the tent, escorted by the corporal, of course.
Sasha's being sick twice in a few weeks concerned me a bit, but getting ill when going to another country was not unheard of. Heck, I had a bout with something early in my first trip to Guatemala. I just figured I'd picked something up in the airport. It was over in a few days, during which I slept more than usual and kept to a light schedule. In Egypt, my being sick was blamed on something in the drinking water or food not agreeing with me. How ignorant we were then...
Anyway, after we had gathered what the military would let us take, we had our tour. Then they put us on the first available flight out of the country, in first class, with enough connecting flights to get us back to the States. Hassim had assured us as we were boarding the plane that our gear would be sent to the University after it had been 'inspected'.
The plane trip back was, frankly, annoying. I spent the entire trip convinced that the volume knobs in the armrest of each seat were broken and wouldn't go below the too-damn-loud setting. Giving up on listening to ear-splitting 1970's rock on the 'classics' channel, I tried to take a nap. This didn't work for long, as I still wasn't feeling very well and the plane was noisier than usual. For some reason, I kept hearing fragments of every conversation within 5 rows, at least. Even worse, somebody nearby was wearing way too much perfume or cologne. I couldn't tell which, the smell of it was so strong. Unable to sleep, and since Sasha wasn't in any mood to talk, I spent the rest of the trip reading. Even that was a struggle with all the noise.
I won't even go into the picky customs inspector who told me that if I was going to change my hair color, the passport should reflect that. She also insisted they got my eye color wrong too. Then she mumbled something about not even knowing if that particular shade of light yellowish brown was an eye color designation or not. She decided that brown was close enough, and had a few choice comments about how the "foul up" was just another case of some lazy person in the passport office trying to make her life miserable. She then asked how I got my hair that exact color. She said she wasn't aware that Lion was even a color available. I said something about my hair getting bleached by the sun. She stared skeptically at me, as if I'd just said there were cows in her soup. Then she made a quiet comment about men not knowing anything about hair treatment, and moved on to the other standard security questions.
The hair and eye color comments bugged me, but what really started to get me concerned was when I heard the person behind me mutter that the customs official should just get on with things already. It sounded like he was saying it loud enough for everyone to hear, and no one else reacted as if they'd heard a thing. Meanwhile, someone else was complaining about the hygiene of whomever smelled like a litter of cats. This was followed by a giggle from their companion. The customs official then warned me to make sure I got my passport fixed, and made a little chit-chat about how she liked cats too, her having 4 and all. She added that the hints of leopard spots my hairstylist used to accent the new color were a nice touch. Really confused now, my thoughts raced as her partner thoroughly checked my duffel bag to make sure there wasn't a terrorist hiding inside a sock or something.
Once the interview was over, I meandered over to where Sasha was waiting, lost in thoughts of her own. We don't own a cat, and I didn't do anything to my hair. I decided that the full length mirror I had installed for Sasha when she moved in with me was going to get a workout when I got home.
"And at this point, you're probably thinking how stupid we were not to connect the dots, aren't you? Well, keep in mind that this was early in 2003 -- back then, all the confirmed SCABS cases in the world could be counted on two or three hands. Spontaneous bodily transformation was something that just didn't happen to people, okay?"
Navigating through traffic was more annoying than usual. This was mainly because my attention seemed to be drawn to every moving object in sight. By the time Sasha and I returned to the apartment, I had a low-grade headache from the effort of trying to remain focused on driving. Upon entering the apartment, I immediately went into the bathroom to follow up on what the customs official had said earlier, leaving Sasha to wonder what was wrong. As I inspected myself in the mirror, I explained to her what had happened at the airport. What I saw concerned me, but there was nothing I could do about it at the moment. What was once dark brown hair almost looked tawny now, with some slightly darker highlights. This wasn't totally unexplainable, as I'd been out in the sun a lot while in Egypt. I wasn't sure, however, that the sun could bleach hair out in this particular fashion in a little under a week. Also, I didn't notice any signs of leopard type markings, just a few darker spots the sun didn't get. As for my eyes, there didn't seem to be that much difference, except that they seemed a bit lighter, just barely enough to be noticeable. All in all, the inspection did little to answer any of my questions. Thus being at an impasse, I tried to set the whole incident aside.
Still puzzled about just what the heck was going on, I began to get dressed again. By the time I had finished, I had almost convinced myself that I was the butt of a practical joke by one of Sasha's students the night I was out cold due to whatever illness I had caught. I was on my way to the living room when the phone rang so loud I almost hit the ceiling. Sasha answered it, and after a brief conversation, told me it was the Dean wondering what had happened in Egypt. He told her that there would be a meeting at some point about the incident and to reminding me that I did have another pressing engagement to go to. Giving Sasha a quick visual once-over to see if she had been pranked as well, I noticed that her hair was a little lighter. The only other noticeable difference was that she looked more physically fit than before she had left for Egypt, but that could be explained by the work involved in archaeology and the change in her diet.
As I began to get things ready for my return to Guatemala, I decided that since she obviously wasn't working on anything else, I should ask Sasha to come with me. My project was at a small, previously unknown, site that I and my friend/co-project director Jose Vargas had found about a year before. Since I had spent close to a week of prime dig time away from my project, I figured I could use her help to have a better chance to get everything finished. A side benefit was that it should give her something to be busy doing instead of stewing over being sent home. I was happy when she agreed, and immediately phoned the Dean and the department chair making sure any arrangements I made in that area would not be frowned upon by the University. He had us make an appointment for the next day where we could give them our versions of what happened in Egypt, and the documents the Egyptian authorities gave us to explain their actions.
The meeting went well, considering. After a day of organizing what we would need, we headed out to New Orleans to catch our flight to Central America. I kept my hat on the entire trip, just to keep the 'cat' comments to a minimum. Even the Dean had made a comment on it, though it wasn't flattering, so I was having one of my 'self conscious' moments during the flight. When we got off the plane in Flores, Guatemala, Jose greeted us enthusiastically. He began talking in very rapid Spanish; the only words I could get out of the speech was "new type of building complex" and "new glyphic text." I told him to slow down, since I wasn't fluent enough to follow what he was saying that quickly. He said, in English, that he and the students had found a new building complex with a cenote in the center. He then related that all of the buildings in this complex were literally covered in carved glyphs and the remains of stucco frescoes.
He started describing what had happened since I left as we got into our jeep, continuing as we pulled out onto the road. He had the basic story finished by the time we got near the center of town, where we were forced to go through a roadblock. After we stopped, our passports were checked, the vehicle and our luggage was thoroughly inspected, and we had to explain our business in the city. After this was completed, the policeman in charge of the roadblock told us that we needed to take a detour to our road out of the city. The entire area from the tourist hotel near the ruins to near the center of Flores was closed off in an attempt to contain the spread of a mysterious illness.
The policeman then informed us that his colleagues were getting annoyed, since this was the second time in a month they'd had to quarantine that part of the city. Thankfully, the first incident had been confined to the tourist hotels, and passed without a major loss of life. Two had died during that quarantine, and one tourist had disappeared into thin air. The rest of the tourists were sent home, after they recovered, with a clean bill of health. The local health officials figured that some of the tourists had brought an unknown strain of the common flu with them, and had spread it to the others. Since it hadn't spread to the locals, the city felt it was out of the woods, and relaxed the quarantine when the last sick tourist left.
The search was still going on for the missing tourist, at least on paper. The searchers had been at an impasse since the night he disappeared. He was last seen entering his room after returning from a night in a local bar, and did not show up for breakfast with the tour group the next morning. They tried knocking on his door, but got no answer. Deciding that he was still sleeping off what he drank the night before, the group left without him. Later that morning, when the maid came in to clean, the room was a shambles; a lot of strange hairs scattered around, the window partially ripped off its hinges, and blood and hair on the broken glass. No other clues were found. All the people in neighboring rooms claimed to hear was what sounded like an animal in pain, but the noise lasted less than a minute.
This outbreak wasn't so nice at the last one. This time, close to two-thirds of the tourists in the local hotels had come down with the illness -- and it was spreading to the locals. The policemen stated that three locals and eight tourists were already dead. They had no idea how many locals had the disease, since the symptoms didn't show up until well after the contagious period began. More disturbing is that a couple of locals who had recovered were now missing. The police sergeant then scoffingly related that there were also rumors of a strange animal or two wandering around the city at night, trying to get into peoples' houses. The officer in charge then laughed and said he wouldn't be surprised to hear tales of vampires next, since they already had a werewolf story.
Making note of what the policeman said, we bid him farewell and followed his detour. As we left town and started on our three to four day trip to the site Jose informed us that he had been working on the glyphic text. As near as he could figure out, the site was a sacred gathering place for pre-Columbian Maya Shamen. The text seemed to outline a ceremony that could best be described as an initiation rite. We reciprocated by telling Jose stories of our recent adventure in Egypt.
When we got to the site, after three days, we found the camp in a bit of disarray. It appeared that a few of the students were sick in their tents. Those who were out and moving didn't look like they were feeling too well either. When I asked what had happened, one of Jose's students replied that he thought another student named Debbie, who was a notoriously poor cook, had tried to poison them all with her dinner the night before. The camp's meal preparation was done on a rotational basis, which, confidentially, made us all dread some day's meals.
With almost everyone sick, I told them we would take the next couple of days off to recover. This would give me time to figure out exactly how we'd record all our finds in the time we had left. Jose and I decided that we'd have to get the Guatemalan government to extend our visas so we could get everything mapped. Manuel, the camp's alleged physician, was also sick; in a strained voice, he said this illness might not be food poisoning, since the symptoms weren't like any food poisoning he'd ever seen, or felt, before. He thought it was more like swine flu or some intestinal bug. Getting rid of the offending food in a person's system -- vomiting -- usually lessened the symptoms or even ended the problem, but several of the students had done that and showed no signs of improving.
"Before I go further, I should explain why I was so sarcastic about Manuel being our physician. The Guatemalan government forced Manuel on us as a 'safety precaution', to make sure nothing happened that would get the government in trouble. We all knew he was there to spy on us, but we were to act as if we didn't know to keep the relations 'cordial'. Me, I had my doubts about his medical background. But it really isn't a good idea to offend the government allowing you to work in their country, so I left well enough alone..."
Anyhow, Manuel said there was no need to take anyone to the Flores hospital, as the disease wasn't life threatening -- mainly just aches, queasy stomach and a general light-headed feeling. After discussing our options for medical care, we decided to wait for the World Health Organization team. They made visits to the small villages in the area every two months, and their next visit was due in about three days. Since the hospitals in Flores were busy with an illness of their own, and it would take us at least three days to get there anyway, the WHO team seemed to be the best option.
We told Manuel to check with his contacts to make sure the WHO team was still on its way. When he asked what the quarantine in Flores was about, he got somewhat upset. It seems that he and Debbie had been there about three days before we arrived, and what he saw there had bothered him since he came back to the camp. He and Debbie were there to get food for the next few weeks; while in the food market, they met some people from a tour group. Members of this group had begun to show symptoms of the flu the day before, and were checking out the local stores to see if they could get some medicine for what they thought was Montezuma's revenge.
When Debbie and Manuel were leaving with their purchased supplies, a local policeman stopped them to make sure they weren't tourists. Manuel explained that Debbie was an archaeologist, and his credentials helped convince the policeman he was telling the truth. After they were cleared to go, the police informed Manuel that every hotel that had tourists staying in it was being quarantined; he also said they'd just found a couple of tourists in a local restaurant, deep in a fever-induced delirium. Manuel offered to help with the tourists' treatment, but he was refused, since one of the WHO teams was already doing so.
After that, Debbie and Manuel returned to the camp. Everything was fine until late in the evening, after Debbie cooked dinner; she started sneezing her head off. The next morning, the rest of the crew began showing symptoms after they spent the morning cooling off in the new cenote. In Manuel's opinion, our crew seemed to be in better shape than the people in Flores. At least that's what Manuel got from radioing a colleague in Flores. Since Manuel was the only 'health care professional' we had, and since I wasn't a miracle worker, I decided to take his word for it.
"I regret that we didn't try to do something more substantial, but then hindsight is always 20-20, isn't it? I guess you could say that it all worked out for the best anyway, given what happened later that day in Flores. Even if we had tried something it wouldn't have mattered anyway, since we had no idea it was Martian Flu. We didn't know that there isn't a cure and it was already too late for the students and many of the local workers assisting us..."
After I made sure the camp was as ship-shape as possible given the circumstances, Jose, Sasha and I headed to the new building complex. It was everything Jose said it was, and there were even three stelae, which Jose said he was keeping secret to surprise me. He knew that I'd been interested in them because of my master's thesis research. I took photos and measurements, and made plans to take rubbings of the carvings so that there would be some record of them. This was a priority, since the looting and vandalism of artifacts was a major problem at that point. The looting was because of too many rich people wanting exotic stuff and not caring about what was destroyed in the process. The vandalism usually resulted from failed attempts to get a desired section of the monument, or if two groups wanting the same object fought over it.
Next, I worked my way around the complex trying to make a mental inventory of what we had. I needed to figure out how long it would take to complete the mapping, photography and maybe a few small excavation pits to check for caches under the stelae. Jose decided he'd start taking pictures that afternoon, when the lighting was good. We would have Sharon, one of the grad students, who had a minor in graphic arts, start drawing the scenes on the buildings if she felt up to the task.
Some time later I stood looking into the cenote, wondering what might lurk beneath the sand at the bottom. It was only about three feet down from ground level to the water, which looked inviting on such a hot day. I heard Sasha mumbling to herself about Egypt as she stood next to me. On an impulse, I decided to return the favor she paid me in the Egyptian cave. She must have heard me at the last moment, because she had just enough time to turn and grab my shirt as I pushed. We both plunged in. The sensation was almost electric, the water was so cold -- it felt like it was at least 30 degrees colder that the 90+ degree air temperature in the jungle at that time of year. Pulling herself out of the water, Sasha gave me a sour look, then ruefully shook her head and smiled. She mumbled something about deserving getting dunked, and then sarcastically said "thanks, I needed that," and headed back toward the camp to get some dry clothes.
Jose, who was photographing the front of one of the structures, looked at me while shaking his head and said: "So much for decorum." Slightly embarrassed, and knowing that no explanation would truly explain things satisfactorily, I climbed out and went to dry off as well.
When I reached the camp, I found that a minor ruckus had broken out. Apparently, one of the locals, who lived about three miles north of the site, came into our camp and was very agitated. He was desperately begging Manuel to radio Flores to get medical help for his village. About a week ago, one of the villagers had returned from taking his goods to market in Flores. When he arrived he staggered into the town square and collapsed. A family member and a couple friends rushed to get him out of the mid-day sun, thinking he was suffering from heat exhaustion. Within days these and other members of the village became ill. After a short debate, it was decided that since our project had a radio, they'd ask us to get help.
Manuel got on the radio to find out where the WHO team was. I asked one of our undergrad students to get Jose and make sure all the other students were in camp, dragging anyone back who'd managed to wander off. Jose being co-project director, he needed to hear this as well.
The government outpost in Flores radioed back that they'd just sent a detachment of Guatemalan military to escort more WHO doctors and a large amount of medicine to Flores. This meant there was no immediate help for the village. If they were putting all three WHO teams in Flores, things were bad. The official there said the situation had taken a major turn for the worse, but gave no specifics. He said that they realized the village's situation might seem bad, but Flores was a higher-priority target, given the larger population. Once the crisis in Flores was averted, they might be able to get to us. Manuel, out of a sense of duty, told the official that three members of the camp had been in Flores that day. He also said he and one other camp member had been there about a week before. Bad move; the official's attitude got worse, fast. This is when Sasha entered the tent, shortly followed by Jose, who had obviously sprinted back to the camp.
In a nervous voice, the official asked if anything strange had happened in the camp recently. Manuel said most of the camp had come down with symptoms similar to food poisoning and the Swine Flu. He even joked that I'd come back with jaguar spots in my hair, if that was strange for a gringo. I motioned for Sasha to hand me her compact mirror so I could look for myself. She handed me the mirror did while nodding in agreement with Manuel's statement. Seeing myself, I had to agree, as well. How had those spots gotten there? What sort of madness was going on?
Then Manuel started screaming in Spanish. He had acidly spit out his uncle's name in an attempt to change the mind of the person he was communicating with. The official on the other end of the conversation then became very 'official' sounding and, in English, ordered us not to leave the site, under penalty of having our dig permits permanently revoked and being thrown out of the country. Great: This was Egypt all over again, but possibly more violent from the sound of things, since they were pulling out the big political threats already. He then acidly said that the government would try to send a military patrol to us, for our 'protection', and they'd also get someone "qualified to handle the situation" to the camp. Meanwhile, I could hear a rapid conversation in Spanish going on in the background as the official told us what to do. There was another admonishment not to go anywhere and then the transmission abruptly ceased. Manuel, still fuming, said that what he got of the background conversation was an argument over whether to use "extreme force" on us or not, followed by a demand to, quote, "close the channel before I have you shot".
Not knowing what kind of situation we might be in, I decided to play it safe and follow orders, at least until I found out more information. It would take at least three days for anyone to get there from the nearest army base. This was mainly because there weren't any clearings large enough for helicopters within 10 miles of our camp. We were certain we'd have plenty of time to wait and sort things out with the officials. Jose, who was also listening to the argument, confirmed Manuel's interpretation and stepped out to get the students together for a meeting.
While we discussed our next action, Manuel kept trying to radio his official contacts. No one on the official channels would acknowledge Manuel's transmissions, though. Concerned, but not yet alarmed, I looked around for things to keep everyone occupied until the military got here. We couldn't do any excavating to keep busy, since I gave the local workers time off as well; excavating without them was a breach of our permit regulations. The local workers had taken my generosity as an excuse to have a long weekend, and most had gone back to their villages soon after I let them know our plans. With all the free time on my hands, I decided to radio some other camps to get the latest gossip and news.
I told Stan, my student assistant, to get on the shortwave radio and listen to the BBC. Either that or any local station he could get that spoke a language he understood. We needed whatever non-government-filtered news he could find about what was going on. I also told him to start packing while he listened, and let the others know they should start getting ready to leave. We'd have to move as soon as possible if the officials wanted us to do so, or vamoose in case they decided it was best for us to 'disappear'. The 'orders' I had gotten seemed very strange for some reason. No niceties about how sorry they were that something happened to us, and that one official had almost sounded terrified toward the end of the conversation. There was something about the sound of his voice, some quirk of his tone or timbre fed through the deadpan way he was trying to talk to us. I didn't know how my ears could have picked it up so well. That and the whole jaguar-spot thing was becoming too hard to ignore. Something big was happening, and we were being kept in the dark.
The more I thought about it, the greater my urge to move away from the camp. I guess my survival instincts were really starting to get hardwired at this point. It didn't take long for them to make me think I was becoming paranoid, but paranoia or not, I couldn't shake the feeling that it was well founded. I mean, it's not exactly hard for a group of gringo scientists to get 'lost' in the jungle. Being so far from civilization, how would anybody be able to refute whatever explanation the government concocted? Sasha, acting like she knew exactly where my thoughts were going, agreed that we should prepare for the worst. She left to help round up everyone for that meeting.
Things were taking a decidedly sinister turn, and I wasn't going to risk my students' lives on waiting to see if the government official was telling the truth. Manuel, slightly panicked, made an excuse about going to his tent to prepare for the Army's arrival and quickly left. This made my instincts really start sounding off. If Manuel was that scared, he must be hiding something. With alarm bells going off in my brain, I decided to do some investigating to see if my hunch was correct.
I first contacted a project being run by a Dr. Pamela Rogers in Chiapas, Mexico. I tried to make like it was a routine conversation, just in case some government official was eavesdropping. She immediately informed me, quietly, that my instincts were correct and I should follow them. Why was she whispering that quietly, and how the hell could I hear it over the radio static? Thinking back, it's clear that my brain must have been getting altered along with my body; instead of writing it off as a figure of speech, I got very worried about how in the world she knew about my instincts. In a normal voice she followed up by telling me everything was okay there. There were some concerns by the Mexican government about their welfare, since there was a strange illness showing up in the major tourist destinations of the region. Such a coincidence, eh? There was talk about closing the airports and borders until sense could be made out of the situation.
She assured me that none of her workers or students were ill. For some reason, however, I could hear a tone in her voice that made me feel that this wasn't exactly true. In fact, she seemed to be deliberately using subtle intonations to get that message across. She then calmly asked me what was going on in my neck of the woods, followed by another whisper assuring me much would be explained when I got to her camp.
I was confused about what was happening to me, since the whispers I was hearing wouldn't be audible to anyone even standing right next to her. Plus, her wealth of information she shouldn't know was also driving me nuts. Trying my best not to let on how disturbed I was, I informed Pam of our situation, and that we were waiting for the army to arrive. She emphatically whispered no immediately after I said this.
We then chatted about a new temple they had uncovered that week, which she insisted that I had to see. She said that something in there would confirm one of my "pet" theories -- I could even hear the quotes. She then asked me when my students and I were going to come to her camp for the guided tour she had promised us. But we hadn't discussed any such thing, so what was her game? Was this another way of telling me to get out of Guatemala without drawing attention to that fact? Playing along, I told her we would show up when we could, but there was the matter of dealing with the army first. I then asked if she had heard anything about what was happening in Guatemala. She replied that she had heard that Flores itself was on fire and rioting and looting had broken out. This was information that had been quietly left out by the Guatemalan government official in our earlier radio conversation.
All the news reports Pam heard said the army was being sent to Flores to quell an uprising in the local Mayan populace. She recommended that I call one of the other projects working in the area of Flores to see if they had any more concrete news. As for her area in Mexico, they were still debating whether a quarantine was necessary. Some local officials were already taking matters into their own hands after hearing rumors about Guatemala, and were blocking off the tourist hotels in their domains. A military unit was being assigned to beef up the security guards hired by the government agency in charge of regulating Mexican Archaeology at the ruins Pam was working in. This was being done because of a concern "for the general safety of all foreigners in Chiapas". The region had been a hotbed for political uprisings since the 1980s, and a brewing crisis like this could be the excuse needed to stir things up again.
I started to inform Pam that we'd do our best to get there, but she interrupted me before I got past the first two words. She said I should trust my instincts, and that she knew what I'd do. With another of those whispers, she said I should expect more information from her if we made it past the river and reached her camp, and that she felt big changes coming, so she hoped I liked cats. She then cheerfully, albeit sounding a bit forced, signed off in her usual manner. With yet another cat reference to sit in my subconscious, I switched frequencies on the radio to continue my information gathering.
Next up: The projects being run by another university in the ceremonial centers of Uaxactun and Naranjo, since they were closer to Flores than I was. From the project at Uaxactun, I got nothing but static. In Naranjo, someone with a British accent answered. He said they were much too busy trying to find the archaeologists that were supposed to be there to chit-chat. I told him I was on an academically connected project in Guatemala, and I really needed to know anything he could tell me. 'Leftennant' Jones, as he identified himself, informed me that the camp was partially burned and that there was no sign of the archaeological team.
He said fighting had broken out in Flores and had spread into the surrounding jungle villages. Armed mobs were apparently going after any foreigner they could find. It looked as if the camp had been attacked by one of these mobs, but there were no bodies to be found. He figured the mob had gotten to the camp, found it deserted, and tried to burn it anyway. I told him that there should be a group of about five or six archaeologists and students at the camp, mapping the site as reconnaissance for a larger project next year.
Leftennant Jones said, "Well, I do appreciate -- bloody hell!" and the rest was lost in the sound of gunfire. He then yelled for me to radio someone at one of the British camps in Belize in case he couldn't. Then the circuit died, with an electric crackling and hissing sound. Not knowing the frequency that any British camps were using, I switched over to a commercial frequency. From there I was able to get an un-coded military frequency from a HAM radio enthusiast in Belize.
Next, I got hold of a British unit in the Orange Walk district of Belize. The radio operator said that his base was mobilizing and I should get off the air. I told him about the patrol under fire at the border. He believed I was on the level, mostly because I knew that Leftennant Jones was in charge of that patrol. He relayed my message, then asked how I got in contact with the patrol. When he found out where I was, he advised us to leave as soon as possible.
He told us what he'd heard from border guards that defected to Belize instead of fighting: the Guatemalan government was on war footing. They were aggressively trying to stop the spread of a disease that originated in several tourist locations in the country. He then said we should clear the channel, as his people were being dispatched to get to the Leftennant's patrol. He reiterated that we had to leave any way we could, then let out a short burst of curses as more gunfire erupted. Just before this abrupt termination of the conversation, Sasha and Jose had returned to see what else I had found out. I think it was the sound of that gunfire over the open circuit that really clued us in to the fact that this disease thing -- with so many outbreaks, all at the same time in widely separated places, it couldn't be coincidence -- was getting serious. Apparently, not only were the Guatemalans rioting and going after foreigners, it sounded like someone wanted to invade Belize as well.
The local who had come to us for help was really pale as the radio conversations finished. Before he ran out of the tent, he yelled something that Jose translated for us as "Everyone, run for their lives!" After two radio conversations ended with gunfire, I wasn't about to argue. Maybe it was paranoia, but I didn't feel like sticking around long enough to find out if I was wrong. Besides... my fight-or-flight instinct was going nuts. Forcing the feeling down, I switched back to Pam's frequency, just in case she had anything else I should know before we left. With too many wild thoughts racing through my head, I set off to prepare the others for what we must do.
As I was stepping out of the main tent, I almost ran into Stan; he said the BBC was unusually quiet at the moment. The only exception was a news anchor breaking in on a discussion on European trade deficits to report possible violence in our area. He got cut off the air in the middle of demanding that his research staff get hard information instead of these fairy stories they were giving him. Ralph, Stan's cousin, and a junior at the university, was tagging along behind him. I told Stan that when he was finished packing his essentials, he and Ralph should pack up as much gear and provisions in the main tent as he could. I asked him to leave the short wave receiver for last, and to report anything they heard on the radio, even just silence. The two-way radio running on a generator with a car battery backup, wasn't portable; we'd have to destroy it before we left. No sense in leaving functioning expensive equipment around for some soldier to sell on the black market. Jose offered to help pack the essentials from the main tent as soon as he was finished with his gear. A few minutes later, Ralph came back to report that two of the students, Debbie and Sharon, were so ill that they'd have to be carried.
When I went to check on them, I found Debbie and Sharon both in fever-induced stupors. This concerned the other students, as both had been up and raring to go at breakfast. Leaving Sasha behind to keep an eye on them and help them if she could, I went to where the others had gathered and broke the news to them. Only Manuel still felt that we should do as the government official had told us, and even so, his protest was half-hearted. Since personal belongings were probably the least important items at the moment, I got the rest of the group over to the main tent; we grabbed as much gear and food as we could, and made stretchers out of two of our tents. Then I had everyone grab their really important items.
After an hour, we had everyone come to the center of the camp and unpack their backpacks and rucksacks. Any items that weren't absolutely necessary, we discarded. No one was happy about having to leave non-essentials behind, but we really needed room for all the food and camp equipment, including first aid supplies, we could carry. We left about an hour and forty-five minutes after I told everyone to repack their remaining stuff. I guess it must have been around 4 PM. As we were getting ready to go, Joaquin, one of the local workers assigned to us, told us he could take us to a place in the mountains he'd learned of from his grandfather. When asked, he said he'd heard some villager screaming about how the government wanted to kill the "gringos" and his village as well. He decided to return and help us, instead of just letting us get killed.
He said the cave was very remote and should hide us from the military, at least for a while. He then slyly stated that we archaeologists should find it a very fitting place to visit. Joaquin's offer sure beat traipsing off through the jungle with no clue where to go, so we took it. The terrain was rough, but through sheer determination, we made about seven miles before it became too dark to travel. Frankly, Sasha and I thought the light was okay, but we couldn't go on ahead without abandoning the majority who disagreed.
We slept fitfully in a thick clump of jungle growth about 100 yards from the path we were using, or at least some of us did. For some reason, ever since Egypt, I could only sleep for a few hours at a time. I took turns with Stan keeping watch, just in case, while Sasha and Manuel took turns tending to Debbie and Sharon in an attempt to keep their fevers down. About dawn, we heard helicopters in the direction of the camp. That was our cue to move out and get as far away from the camp as we could. The grinding scream of a Vulcan mini-cannon -- hear it once, and you will never forget that sound -- from the general direction of our camp, followed by several large explosions, made sure nobody wanted to stay here.
After two days of using game trails and paths between small villages and homesteads, we finally staggered into our hiding place. By that time all of us were too ill, or tired, to go any further. The cave at the site was rich in artifacts deposited there by native peoples for over a thousand years. This fact was lost on us, however, as out of sheer exhaustion, we passed out fairly rapidly.
When I woke up, I felt very groggy, and for some reason I was getting strange 'signals' from places where there shouldn't be anything. As I forced my eyes open, I was shocked... no, that term is not strong enough... almost terrified to see what looked to be a cross between a jaguar and a human staring back at me. In my rush to get as far away as possible, I did something that made me forget all about what I'd just seen. Faster than I had ever moved before, I jumped over 25 feet further into the cave. This bothered me no end, at least when I realized what I'd just done. Nothing human could do that! I looked at my feet and froze. I had what looked like human feet, but they were much larger, covered with fur, and had claws on the toes. Then I saw my hands, and I damn near lost it. My palms and fingers had paw-like pads, and they were covered in a tawny jaguar-spotted fur. I think it was the retractable claws, fully extended at the time, which really got to me. After struggling mightily to not give into the panic I was feeling, I quickly looked around to see if the students were waiting with lit torches to "burn the monster".
What I saw was very different from what I'd feared, but no less troubling. Almost everyone in the cave had some degree of transformation. Another lion/jaguar/human hybrid I somehow immediately recognized as Sasha was sitting by the mouth of the cave, apparently having an argument with herself. There was a tapir in the cave, who I later found out was Stan, and a creature who looked a lot like Ralph with some rabbit-y features. I did a quick head count and came up nine people short.
"Hold it." Again, it's the cheetah who interrupts my story. "You're claiming five SCABs out of a group of fourteen --" here he went blurry for an instant, "-- and that's just under 36%. Only point-oh-oh-three-one chance of that -- pretty damned unlikely."
Spot must have beaten the horse to the punch, because each is as skeptical as the other. The horse says, "True, but not as much as you'd think, Jubatus. Your figure is correct for the current SCABS rate in the US, but Martian Flu victims in Central America have always had a disproportionately high chance of developing SCABS. During the Collapse, the odds for a 'Flu victim in Central America were about 15%, which means the statistical cluster Mr. Wolfshadow described is a one-in-28 longshot."
I shrug. "Actually, the real figure was closer to 50 percent than 36."
"Seven out of fourteen? Make that a one-in-531 longshot."
The horse knows the odds that well? Weird! "All I can tell you is, I was there and I saw what I saw. And you're right about the odds being higher south of the border, Mr. Horse. It's another reason I think 'the disease' has been around for a while -- if the population in that region really has been exposed to something like Martian Flu for the past several centuries, they would've adapted to it, right? Kind of like the plague in the Middle Ages; messed up Europe real good, but since the Middle-Eastern nations had to deal with it in their society longer, they weren't affected nearly as bad. I could be wrong, but I'm definitely not imagining things. Anyway, at this point, we were really in the dark."
"'Dark', or 'downright blind'?" Jubatus sneers. "Or how about just 'making shit up'? Face it, even Trigger over here thinks your story is too good to be true!" he says, gesturing at the big equine.
"Don't be too hasty, Jubatus," the horse replies. "Statistical clusters do happen, and Mr. Wolfshadow isn't the first to report such a high transformation rate in that region. For now, let's grant his report provisional acceptance and let him continue."
Okay. How the hell does the horse know so much about the statistics relating to Scabs? Could he work for the hospital and prefers to keep it secret? I'm missing something here... No. Keeping an eye on Spot there is more important right now. He's still looking for a way to prove me wrong, and if he does that, then this was a wasted trip. Now the equine is staring at me, impatient for me to continue. I'd better give him what he wants...
The jaguar/human I first saw turned out to be Jose. After he stopped laughing at my reaction, he said six of the missing students and Manuel, none of whom had apparently changed like we did, left to find their own way out. They weren't too keen on hanging around with a bunch of freaks that might just as soon eat them as look at them. Joaquin tried convince them not to leave, or to get them someplace safe if they would not come back to the cave, but they didn't listen.
As for the other missing student, she was Debbie. When Jose last saw her, she appeared to have transformed about half way between howler monkey and human. This was soon after he woke up and discovered what had happened to himself. While he got used to his new senses, he looked around in time to see Debbie get a good look at herself in a small mirror. After a few seconds where she became increasingly panic stricken, she screamed something about having offended God and being cursed -- and when a howler monkey screams, even deaf people hear it. With my ears, I'm just glad I was too delirious from fever to notice, or care about, anything. Everybody who was vaguely coherent woke up in time to catch a glimpse of her running off, babbling something about being repaid for accidentally trying to poison the students. Jose was in no real condition to follow Debbie, as he was still trying to figure out how to make all his new parts work the right way. Some of the others started to go after Debbie, but only until they realized that they were in the same boat as Jose. The others were too afraid of what was happening to stay, but even more afraid of getting lost in the jungle, and so did not give chase. We never saw Debbie again.
I could sympathize with how she must have felt; those of us who'd been left behind by the unaffected members of our party weren't doing much better. Mostly the mood was one of depression. What strange magic had we gotten into that could warp our bodies, our very humanity? For whatever reason, Jose was fine with his new body; he was enjoying himself trying new things, and then shaking his head in disbelief when he did them. Well, he was always one to look at the bright side of any given situation, so that didn't really surprise me.
Stan was practically catatonic; he was barely even breathing. Ralph was doing a remarkable job at keeping his wits about him, given the circumstances, but the scent from that side of the cave was one of animals on the verge of sheer terror. Sasha had just about come to grips with the situation, basically reminding herself that there was nothing she could do to change things. Over and over... for about five minutes. Once I saw there were no imminent threats, and I couldn't do much to help anyone out, I began to speculate on what could have happened. It was my own an attempt to come to grips with how things out of fantasy or horror novels had become reality.
Sasha put an end to this though, when I brought Egypt into the speculation. No sooner had the word Egypt passed my lips, when she began forcefully reminding me that the 'why' didn't matter at this point, dealing with reality did. The emotion in her voice caused everybody, even me, to back away from her. You ever see a female lion/jaguar/wolf with a world-class mad on, you'll understand. After her spirited, and lengthy, tirade was over, she forced herself to calm down. To distract ourselves, we took inventory of the gear we had left. Our deserters seemed to have taken much of it, including most of the food. When asked how long ago the other nine left, Jose said that Joaquin and the others had been gone for three days. That's when Jose dropped another bombshell on me: I had been unconscious for the better part of a week. Yeah, I was shocked, but seeing as there was nothing else to do at the moment, I spent the rest of the afternoon consoling Sasha and trying to figure out what we were going to do next.
Over the next two days, I persuaded Sasha and Jose that we really needed to get to Pam's project in the ruins of Palenque. What finally won them over was what had happened in my radio conversation with Pam back at the camp. Jose just stared at me, and Sasha didn't believe me, until I hit the part about Pam saying that she hoped I liked cats. She was still skeptical, mind you, but with all of the other weird things that had happened, she wasn't ready to take the chance that I was reading too much into the conversation. Any lingering doubts were completely dispelled by what Joaquin had to tell us when he returned.
Joaquin showed up about three days later, with some food he had caught or gathered along the way and a couple machetes to replace those taken by our absent friends. Joaquin said he just couldn't convince the others to stay, period. Like I said earlier, they weren't going to find out the hard way if Jose, Sasha and/or myself wanted them for lunch.
Manuel and the unaffected students took off on what they hoped was the shortest route to Mexico. They told Joaquin that if they made it out, they'd try to cook up a believable story for the authorities to explain what had happened. Joaquin spent the next day or so helping them along. Basically, their plan was to hop from one village to the next, using any local assistance they could get. He figured that we, being visibly freakish, would need more help getting out of the country, and so came back with all the supplies he could carry. He also collected as much current news as he could, so we could avoid as many danger zones as possible. He thought visiting Pam's camp was a great idea, since that route would not only make harder for any hostiles to follow, it'd also keep us away from most inhabited locations. Best of all, there weren't many reports of fighting in that region.
When Ralph asked Joaquin why he wasn't concerned about staying with a bunch of freaks, Joaquin said he had no problem with our current condition. He even admitted that he was somewhat jealous, since such looks could be a social benefit with those who still followed the "old ways". Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Stan inching his way closer to the group to better hear what was being said. Having been shocked out of his catatonic state by Sasha's tirade, he had been spending the last day or so trying to overcome his instinctual need to get away from the 'predators'. He said that while his rational mind was telling him he had nothing to worry about, his hindbrain was saying something much different.
Joaquin had even more 'good' news for us. He'd heard that much of the country was in a high state of panic, 'thanks' to the mysterious disease spreading rapidly through populated areas. There were a few reports of infected people reaching Guatemala City, and a few border towns in the northern Yucatan were either rioting or under attack. Going north was out of the question. We hoped the others got out safely, since they were going really close to some of the worst areas of fighting.
Joaquin's next tidbit was really interesting: While gathering information near our former camp, he saw a transformed victim of the disease change back to human in order to deal with his neighbors. This set off a frenzy of questions from the rest of us; even if we'd asked one at a time, Joaquin couldn't have answered even a tenth of them. As you might expect, all of us tried to change back, and some even succeeded, at least partway. Ralph and Stan were actually able to make themselves look almost normal, but Stan found out the hard way that he couldn't hold human form for more than a few minutes. Worse, he reverted all the way to tapir form, was stuck that way for twice the time he'd spent as a human, and ended up in a half-and-half hybrid form. Jose found that he could change to a jaguar with no trouble at all, but had to change back to speak. Sasha and I were just plain stuck in the forms we were in.
Spot breaks in again. "You know, Wolfie, this story of yours gets harder to believe all the time. It's one thing for your group to have no chronomorphs or inanimorphs -- but where are the gendermorphs? And how the hell did you get so damn many shapeshifters?"
"Calm down, Jubatus," the horse says. "Three shapeshifters out of seven animorphs is within statistical norms."
For some reason, the horse's impassive face doesn't strike me as matching the tone of his words... never mind.
"Maybe my story is unlikely -- but, again, all I can say is, I was there and I saw what I saw." I shrug. "Like I said earlier, I think there's different strains of Martian Flu. My theory on the number of animorphs is that the water in the cenote carried one of those strains; since everyone who transformed had been exposed to that water, whatever was in it had to have influenced the disease. Those who weren't resistant to the disease somehow became animals and animorphs, like all the carvings around the cenote; jaguar, in my case. Same deal for the "well" in Egypt, except I got lion parts there. The wolf parts, your guess is as good as mine. Maybe some kind of interaction between the viral strains... Maybe Stein would know, but me, I'm not a geneticist. Multiple 'Flu strains is the best and simplest explanation I've got. Occam's Razor, right?"
Spot makes another disbelieving noise and looks a little more smug, like I just dug myself in deeper. The horse, on the other hand, seems to be lost in thought. Something I said hit home and he seems to be rethinking something. After about two more minutes where Jubatus and I stare at each other, and I try to hold back my temper again, Wanderer steps in to break the tension of the moment. "Pray thee continue, my friend. I am sure that more enlightenment will be forthcoming as thy narrative continues."
I nod gratefully at Wanderer and say, "Certainly, kind sir. I doth not wish to tie up thy lives much longer, and all this staring" -- here I glance at the cheetah -- "will get us nowhere..."
After everyone gave up trying to turn human, Joaquin finished bringing us up to date. He detoured back to our camp to salvage whatever food he could. The camp was practically burnt to the ground, it looked like it'd been shot up with a large caliber weapon, and there were a few military personnel wandering around the remains of the camp. He figured they were looking for us. Fortunately, the whole area was so thrashed that they'd've been lucky to spot the ruts of a platoon of halftracks.
There were more would-be trackers, and Joaquin evaded them all. He found the village that'd asked us for help. It was a pile of ashes. A few bodies were visible, and one or two of those were partially transformed. Many other local villages got the same treatment before the military gave up trying; too many villages to deal with, and the disease had spread far beyond our camp. Heck, with the country practically disintegrating around them, nobody was entirely sure who was in charge anymore, and no sane soldier wants to kill civilians.
Amazingly, Joaquin found a survivor from this village while on his way back to us. Turns out lots of people escaped to other villages before the army came -- the main route for spreading the virus into other areas of Central America. Besides the virus, these refugees also spread rumors of what the army was up to. Any time somebody even thought the army was moving in, there was a fresh stampede to the next village.
But while the army-types weren't killing their countrymen any more, we were still persona non grata. The rumor going around was that we were part of a larger American conspiracy, biowar followed by a takeover. Too bad nobody checked the news to see what was happening in the United States at the time. Of course, the U.S. press was doing a great job at keeping things quiet at the time, so it might not have mattered, but still... It was only another week or two before all hell broke loose north of the border, too.
Joaquin's news further said all missing archaeological expeditions, including us, were officially listed missing in a widespread revolt of the local citizenry. This alleged 'revolt' was spreading to encompass the whole Yucatan Peninsula. The official story was that nobody knew how the revolt had started; they were doing everything they could to save us before things really spiraled out of control; and we, like every other group near the center of the uprising, were probably dead. They were blaming the victims, as we supposedly stayed to finish our work because we were naive enough to think we'd be safe. Quote, all available personnel, end quote, were searching for us as per the wishes of the United States government, but there was little hope of finding us. What a pile of crap, huh?
Nobody in our group believed the government, or what was left of it, wanted us found alive. All things considered, waiting things out in the cave was a bad idea. Someone might have seen us come here, or could follow Joaquin, back here after any trip to get us 'civilized' food and news, so we were pretty much sitting ducks.
By the time Joaquin returned, our supplies were running pretty low. Hunting and scavenging made up for lack of food, but only just barely. The scavenging got better when Joaquin returned, since he knew the local plants. As for hunting, we could have used our new animal 'enhancements' if need be, but we didn't want to even think about that. It wasn't what humans do. And believe me, at this point we were highly concerned about proving to ourselves that we were still human.
Ralph and Stan decided that since they could pass as human, at least for a bit, they'd try to get back to the states in the quickest way possible. We decided we'd get them to someplace they could take advantage of public transportation in short trips. They'd pose as tourists who'd been visiting the Yucatan and beaches along the Gulf of Mexico when the shit hit the fan; once they got home, they'd try to help us. As for Jose, Sasha and I, we'd take an overland route to Pam's project area, staying out of sight as much as possible. Given our appearance, and not knowing what had happened outside our own little corner of the world, we figured a long trip under cover was better than the risk of being shot on sight. Sure, we had Joaquin's reports of other transformed people, but those were just hearsay -- how far could we trust them?
We set out with the full knowledge that this region was rapidly becoming an example of chaos at its finest. It took us four and a half months to reach the border with Mexico. We spent most of it following trails, both human- and animal-made, while avoiding the armed patrols that seemed to spring up out of nowhere. The patrols became more numerous the closer we got to the border, which really slowed us down. Given how silent and stealthy jaguars are, Jose spent a lot of time scouting ahead. That time was well spent though. We got used to our new "equipment," and started using the new hardwired instincts that came with them.
The new sense of smell, that was the biggie. It's much easier to avoid patrols when you can smell them in advance, depending on the wind direction, or at least where they had been. This makes it easy to avoid heavily-used trails. We got almost as stealthy as Jose in jaguar form as we listened to what our bodies and instincts were telling us. It got much easier when we realized that we weren't losing our humanity -- that the instincts didn't control our actions, but were really just tools for us to use. That did a lot for our peace of mind. We even began hunting a bit to enhance our meager food supply. We didn't enjoy it, but after about three weeks of nothing but veggies, it became obvious meat had to become a major part of our diet, at least for Jose, Sasha and I.
"How did your body respond to eating vegetables -- any diarrhea?"
Huh? This time it's the horse who interrupted, not Spot -- thank God for small favors. At least I don't have to explain about how carnivores can eat plants, it's just that the downstream effects are such that they usually don't want to... and from the sympathetic look Wanderer's giving me, I'll bet he's got first-hand experience with those downstream effects. "No. Sasha and I may have carnivore-type teeth, but when you feel like you've been on the Atkins diet after eating nothing but meat, you get the idea that you need the green stuff. And our digestive tracts are still mostly-human -- like I said, the docs in Louisiana gave us a real thorough exam. Jose I'm not sure about, he just didn't eat plants at all after he'd been playing jaguar for a while. As for Stan and Ralph, they were pure herbivores. Moving right along..."
Once we hit the Mexican border, crossing it turned out to be a fairly lengthy process. We sat on a hill above the Usumacinta River for four days to figure out the patrol routines before we decided to swim the river. During the day, the Guatemalan bank was regularly inspected by foot patrols, and the river itself was patrolled by boats. Patrols on the Mexican side were pretty irregular, from what we could see of them, and got more so at night. All in all, a night crossing was best. We'd have a few hours' head start by the time it was light enough for any traces of our passing to be seen. And believe me, with as large as I and Sasha were, it was hard not leaving a noticeable trace, especially in the mud. The kind of tracks we left wouldn't be connected to those American archaeologists the Government wanted dead; anybody who saw them would just figure the track-makers were more of those 'monsters' they were supposed to kill.
Another reason to go at night was that the river would tell of our passing, at least for a few minutes. It's amazing how long ripples last in a body of water. The river was patrolled by boats akin to those you see in movies and documentaries about Viet Nam, and chances were good that the ripples would be seen, especially in daylight. Most of all, there was no real way to know who was in charge of the boats; military, or petty, and I use the term loosely, warlords. The latter had started taking advantage of those who were transformed in some way by 'recruiting' them into their 'armies of revolution'. It was a simple offer: Join and be protected, or refuse and get shot. It didn't take many deaths to convince others to join. We found out that these warlords were rapidly replacing the military locally.
It didn't help that the Guatemalan military wasn't much concerned about standard uniforms. We assumed it was the military, because there were only humans in the patrols. Since whoever was manning the boats had large caliber weapons, however, it didn't matter much either way. The Mexican side of the river was occasionally searched by land-based patrols as well, but these were nowhere near as big a problem. These were three or four hours apart. The boats usually went by every hour or so.
We counted our blessings that the foot patrols didn't search the hills near the river. The 'soldiers' weren't exactly eager to be out in the jungle and got the hell out of there as fast as they could. Jose overheard some patrollers talking about extremely large, bipedal predator cats near a village about fifty miles farther north; we figured they'd seen our tracks in one of the few muddy places we'd crossed and word was getting around... fast. We hadn't touched mud since then, so we weren't concerned about being found out here, but we were still amazed at the rate at which rumors traveled in such a poorly populated district.
That night, we quietly moved down to the river after a patrol passed and then swam to the Mexican side. Luckily, we made it to cover a few minutes before the next patrol boat arrived in the area. We got nervous when they lingered a few minutes in the area we crossed. Someone on the boat had noticed something on the Guatemalan side of the river.
From our hiding place, we could hear one of the people on the boat saying something in a hushed and excited voice, and see him gesturing for the pilot to hold his position. He fired one round at something on the far bank and shouted with joy. The boat was piloted to the far bank. Within five minutes, two of the boat crew had wrestled a fairly large deer into the boat, and the crew's general mood had lightened noticeably. This display concerned me. First, why would a deer have lingered so close to where we had crossed? No deer should have been within a thousand yards of such a large group of predators -- our scent should have given us away at the very least. Second, the deer was almost elk sized with a huge rack to boot. The deer in this region are notoriously small. There should have been no deer that big anywhere south of northern Mexico. It seemed likely that the unsuspecting boat crew had just shot a 'Flu victim, and were too happy in the thought of a venison dinner to notice.
This incident showed me just how good feline eyesight really is. I got a good look at the carcass as they were putting it into the boat -- no wounds. It was also still breathing, but very shallowly, almost as if it were stunned. Imagine the surprise on the faces of the boat crew when the buck came to, forced its way up and leaped out of the boat into the river. They opened up on the deer, generally missing, but amazingly the few hits bounced off and ricocheted in all directions.
One of the patrons pipes up: "Hold on! A bulletproof Scab!? You were seeing things."
"I assure you I wasn't," I reply. "I don't know what kind of proof I can give you here, besides to say that they shot at it, and the bullets bounced off. That fact created quite a stir on the boat, believe me --"
The cheetah says one word: "Inanimorph." He's still greatly annoyed, but at least he's not aiming it at me.
"Aye, indeed," Wanderer says thoughtfully. "Mayhaps it was an inanimorph that you saw. They be the only ones that dost have that ability I have heard tell of..."
Then one of the lupines replies, with disgust dripping from his voice, "Yeah, that's gotta be it."
I shrug my shoulders. "Like I said, it got shot and didn't seem to get hurt, and then the ricochets started flying over our heads..."
A few bullets whizzed overhead while we were lying in the bushes, and a Mexican patrol, investigating the sound of gunfire, decided that they were under attack and opened fire on the boat. We took advantage of the confusion to move away from the river as quickly and quietly as possible, stopping in a thicket about 200 yards away. Again our hearing and sense of smell paid off. There was the quiet sound of hurried movement coming from farther down a trail we were getting ready to cross. A second patrol had shown up to help the first, and would surely have seen us if we had not heard them. Even so, there was barely enough time to get hidden before they passed us.
Once we were away from the river, patrols got a lot scarcer. That made our journey much easier. We reached Ciudad de Palenque about eight days after the firefight, because of all of the small villages we had to avoid along the way. When we arrived, we asked Joaquin to take what money we had and to go into town to get us a newspaper, plus any 'civilized' food he might be able to get his hands on. We were getting tired of berries, tubers, plants and whatever small animals were unwary enough to cross our path.
In addition to the food, we were also hoping for a bus schedule and route map so we could work up travel plans for Ralph and Stan. We had a limited budget, both in money and Stan's time in human form, so we had to economize. It wouldn't pay for Stan to become a tapir in the middle of a long bus ride.
Joaquin came back with a sad look on his face and a Mexican paper. He said the town was practically in chaos; the disease was more pervasive in the region than what Pam had told me. He found out that the disease began appearing in the city about the same time as it had in Flores. Anyone showing any sign of any illness, flu or not, was looked at like monsters from another world. He also said there were rumors about man-eating creatures lurking in the surrounding jungle, and stories that a few 'monsters' had even been chased out of the city by mobs. Paranoia was rampant, and there were nervous rumors that the Mexican Army was closing in on the city to try and stop the epidemic by any means possible, just like in Guatemala. The only thing stopping outright violence by the townspeople was the efforts of the local clergy. Even the priests were having a hard time keeping tensions below the breaking point. The leader of one group in the town basically stated to the priests that if one more promise or statement got proven wrong, all hell would break loose.
Joaquin's newspaper was in Spanish, and Jose translated for us. While we were getting caught up that way, Joaquin kept watch; he was more worried about making sure that no-one had followed him back here, than getting confirmation of what he already suspected.
The articles in the newspaper didn't give us much hope. The paper was dated the same day that we crossed the river and literally filled with articles about how and where the disease was spreading. There were also listings of death tolls by political district and country. These were followed by editorials about what to try to do to either keep from being infected or to deal with a family member who was. Curiously, there was nothing about what to do if the disease changed a person physically. Either they wanted to deny it was happening, or the issue was too hot to even contemplate discussing. The death tolls were seriously bad news. The average percentage seemed to be close to 25%, with a few places reaching as high as 40%. We thanked God that none of our group died due to the disease, and we took a moment to pray that our absent friends were still alive and healthy.
The article that bothered us most was the front page headline which said the army was going to cordon off the affected areas to check the spread of the disease. People could move freely inside the quarantine region, but nobody would be allowed to leave. Not only did this explain the lack of current news, it also meant there would be no bus service to find here. Getting north out of the region was going to be a lot tougher than planned. Depending on how serious the Mexican government was taking the situation, we might be stuck where we were.
About an hour later, Joaquin and Jose decided to go back into town to see what they could do about getting more recent information and some better supplies. Jose's tagging along didn't sit well with Joaquin, given what he had seen earlier, but Jose bitched so damn much that Joaquin reluctantly gave in. Of course, Joaquin's concerns were justified. Jose came running back 15-20 minutes later, with a mob following him. They didn't follow him into the jungle, however; it seems that the last group to do that had gotten themselves in a pretty bad situation. Only a few came back, and none of those were unscathed.
An hour after Jose's abrupt return, Joaquin came back. He hadn't found anyone willing to sell him food, but he did have a battery powered broadband/short-wave radio with a wind-up generator for a backup power source. Electronic items were very cheap; the people in town were working themselves into a frenzy, and looting wasn't exactly rare. Those vendors still in business figured it was better to sell at insanely low prices than to lose everything to thieves.
Joaquin couldn't get any food because the locals, in their panicked state, had made a run on the local market. Everyone was hoarding what food they could get, and as a result, the local suppliers were hiding what they had left for their own safety. He also told us that the locals were panicking because they figured nothing could be done to stop the spread of the illness. Those who showed even a small amount of transformation, as little as a change in hair color, were considered to be monsters who could spread the disease by their mere presence. From what we understood of the situation, it was a good impression of the climate in the classic horror films of the 1950s and '60s, complete with burning torches, pitchforks and all.
One person, a soldier who'd been forced into the combat zone because he was sick, confirmed to Joaquin that the army had decided to contain the region instead of burning each town to the ground. This was mainly because the soldiers and their officers weren't willing to slaughter the citizens they had enlisted to protect. Joaquin's informant also heard rumors that Guatemala had been hit really hard by the disease, and was totally in chaos. With the departure of the army, petty warlords were popping up everywhere and hiring, or conscripting, some of the more ferocious morph types into personal armies. Regardless of our need for civilized contact and supplies, it was beginning to look like it might be best to find another place to stay for a while.
After some discussion, we decided to move away from the City and the Guatemalan border. We didn't want to end up at the wrong end of an armed incursion. Nor did we relish meeting a mob from the town, if one was brave enough to decide it wanted to go 'monster' hunting. We went about 5 miles northwest from the town and found a secluded hill where we could camp. It was remote enough that we could have a small fire without drawing any attention to ourselves. Luckily, the area to the north and west of town was a major cattle farming region, and some beef cattle were roaming the woods on our hill. God knows why they were walking around loose, but we weren't about to argue with a ready-made food source either.
Over the next day or two, we learned some disturbing things from the radio reports we listened to. According to the BBC and Radio Belize, Guatemala had ceased to be a country with a central government. Over half the population was believed to be dead or missing as far as anyone could tell. The flow of communication out of the region was, understandably, almost non-existent. In the Yucatan provinces of Mexico, and in the remains of Guatemala, the news that did get out spoke of fighting between warlord factions. What was left of the army in Guatemala had tried to regroup and gain control, but the warlords had teamed up to rid themselves of that threat. After the army was no longer a factor, they began battling amongst themselves for supremacy. The warfare, it was reported, was starting to do more damage to the region than the disease had.
Adding to this, confusing stories of half-human/half-animal monsters and other strange phenomena were filtering their way into the broadcast media. For instance, 'Flu survivors in Belize were being treated with reverence, especially those with animal transformations. The Mayan population was looking at the disease as either a curse from the old gods for leaving the old ways, or a miracle designed to set them back on the "right path". Either way, the "changed", as the Mayan people began to call them, were being treated with emotional reactions anywhere from sympathy, to awe, to even downright devotion.
It was obvious that nobody outside of Central America was ready to believe the stories, but felt obligated to report them anyway. With the sheer number of reports they were receiving, more than a few from highly respected sources, they decided there was no way everyone in the region could be in on a hoax. The stories gained even more legitimacy later when similar ones began to appear in well-respected newspapers in the United States. It appeared that the outbreak was also starting to hit the U.S. hard.
The announcer then began to highlight some of the other regional activity. Belize was catching the brunt of organized warlord activity. Some Guatemalan warlords were upset over the concept that the British had controlled Belize, and wanted it for themselves. The fact that the country was still allied with Great Britain after being granted their independence, rather than returning to their 'mother country', added anger to the fire. A few of the stronger warlords were "finding the courage in their hearts to lead their wayward brethren home". The British had sent forces to help and at this point they were holding their own. Later, with help from Australia, they were able to quash most of the fighting around their border.
In Mexico, the Army had done as good a job of locking down the region as was really possible. Only a few sporadic cases had shown up outside of the peninsula, at least as far as was reported in those early days. The news from south of the quarantine line was less inspiring. The rioting and attempts by would-be warlords to take over their own little slices of the Yucatan provinces had begun about a month before we showed up at Palenque. The cities of Merida, Progresso, Chetumal, Valladolid and Cancun were being hit hard by the disease and rioting. Communication with other towns and cities in the region was sporadic at best.
The Mexican Navy, such as it was, and damage done to major airports by the rioting south of the quarantine line, were preventing anyone from leaving the peninsula south of Mexico City. All travel was being restricted in the area between the patrolled zone and the Capital. Rumors about cases of the Martian Flu in major cities north of the quarantine line were being reported, but not confirmed by government or other press sources. The problem the Mexican Army had was that there were nowhere near enough people in the Army to seal off every avenue of disease spread. This was especially the case after members of the blockade force started becoming ill. Soon, they could only patrol the off-road regions and lightly blockade the roads. We weren't fortunate enough to be crossing during this latter period though. In fact, we were damn lucky to get through that area alive.
During our second day on the hill, the BBC reported that the first reported cases of the disease were showing up in Honduras. Fighting was also breaking out in their border area with Guatemala. El Salvador, thinking that the violence spilling into its domain from Guatemala was an armed attack from Honduras, had declared war on Honduras. The fuse on the powder keg was starting to burn, but at least it looked like the explosion would be focused toward South America. With all of the reported violence, and since we were now out of Guatemala, Joaquin decided that he had been away from his relatives long enough. After an emotional farewell, he wished us luck and went back into the jungle.
The next couple days were spent discussing our situation and how we would try to get home. We came to the conclusion that we weren't getting very far just sitting on this hill and over-analyzing what we were facing. Stan and Ralph still wanted to go on their own, but would remain with us until after we got past the blockading forces. They figured they could get out of the country faster than Jose, Sasha and I, and could still try to get help for us from the United States, even with the vague reports of strife occurring there. Stan had practiced enough that he could now stay human up to three and one half hours at a time, and so was more confident in his ability to blend in. A few minutes later, he decided that he might just be able to stay human longer if he spent a long time in tapir form first. Since he automatically reverted to tapir form if he stayed human for any period of time, he figured doing the opposite should make the opposite result happen. So, he decided that he would try an experiment while we were getting organized for the next stage in our journey. After more discussion, it was decided that we would try to evade the patrols guarding the area and get to Veracruz, where we would then split up.
As we were getting ready to set out on the evening of the fourth day on the hill, Jose broke the news that he wasn't going with us. He'd changed his mind and decided there was no way he could fit in if he got back to the States. Instead, he wanted to study how the populace in the region was adapting to the disease. When I reminded him that he would be leaving us without an interpreter, he replied that he thought my Spanish was good enough to get by, and making it a sink-or-swim situation should make my Spanish better. He promised to send news of our plight back to our friends and family in the U.S., if he could find a way to do so. We gave him a few written notes to pass on, said our second goodbyes of the afternoon, and Jose headed down the hill in jaguar form. Not long after, Stan let out a string of curses that would make a sailor blush, and we went over to see what was wrong.
It turned out that Stan's experiment didn't quite come out as planned. After about 3 hours in tapir form, he tried to switch to human form. It was a major struggle, and it took him a half hour to make it to human form. He found he could not hold it much longer than he had worked it up to previously. When he reverted though, he changed to a form somewhere in between human and tapir. After this episode, he could still change himself to either tapir or human form for as long as he wanted, but the human form had tapir-colored hair, tapir ears and thick black nails on his hands and feet.
Since making arrangements and Stan's experiment took most of the day, we decided to sit tight until next morning. We left the hill before sunrise, keeping to the brushy areas as much as we could. We worked our way back to Ciudad de Palenque, since the area to the south of the city had more jungle, and mountains to use for cover as we approached the quarantine line. More importantly, Pam's archaeological camp was southwest of the city and we still wanted to know why Pam was so emphatic that about us getting to her camp. Further fueling our curiosity was an orangeish-yellow glow coming from the Palenque area over the past few nights. As we got close, we could smell the unmistakable odor of smoke, a large plume of which darkened the sky in the direction of the city.
The Ciudad de Palenque was barely recognizable when we got there. We found a very small number of survivors in the former city, some of whom were scavenging through the smoldering rubble. Others were just wandering around in a stress-induced daze -- what they used to call shell shock. We found an equine morph on the outside of town, searching through the rubble that once was the hospital. I tried talking to him in my poorly accented Spanish; he looked puzzled. This area had been very popular with German tourists, but my German got no better results.
Sasha gave me a look that said 'why must you do things the hard way?' and greeted him in English. The equine morph looked relieved that he had finally found someone who he could talk to in his native tongue. The problem was, however, he seemed to be in a severe case of denial, or worse. He said his name was Bobby Smith, a student from that year's work in the ruins near the town. He had been taken to the clinic when he got ill around the beginning of the outbreak.
Bobby had partially transformed earlier that week, but when the final rioting started, Bobby passed out and woke up to find himself a horse in a nearby stable. He had no clue why he wasn't in the clinic. He discovered he could resume human form, but since the rioting was because people were afraid of the disease changing them into animals, he stuck with the horse form -- he figured it was safer to be thought of as a 100% animal than a half-human monster. He fled the city for the for the ruins and livestock fields near them, because he was afraid some of the rioters would see him as food. He lived off the few edible vegetable rations left behind in Pam's abandoned camp, and shamefully related that he had to resort to grass when those ran out. He returned to what was left of the city after the fire had died down and he could no longer hear frightening noises.
He came across one of the doctors who'd survived the violence at the hospital, and had a clear picture of what had happened. This Doctor had been one of the ones treating Bobby and was overjoyed to see that Bobby had survived. When asked, he related what he knew. It seems that the city had descended into full-blown anarchy the night we made it to the hill we camped on. The unaffected citizens of the city had decided to take steps not seen since the days of the Black Death in Europe during the Dark Ages. The death rate from the disease was close to 30% in the town, and combining this with the other side effects of the disease, the already panicked members of the populace began to believe that God was punishing the town.
Stories of werewolves and other such creatures began to be thrown about willy-nilly, which resulted in the general paranoia being increased. One never knew when a 'monster' would jump out from around a corner, or out of some dark area and finish them off. When people didn't miraculously get well, and even kept getting sick, after the assurances of the priests that things would get better, things went downhill. Some of the populace became convinced that if they didn't do something, God would bring the fire and brimstone next. They took all of the bodies of those who had died of the disease, and possibly one or two poor bastards who weren't exactly dead, and placed them in a pyre to burn. They felt that this would get rid of the main source of the disease.
Rumors of the similarities between the Black Plague and the Martian Flu, at least death wise, resulted in attempts to use some of the same remedies that seemed to work before. The leaders of the riot took those that were now ill and boarded them up in their own houses -- including the hospital and the church, which was being used as extra hospital space. As the mobs became completely uncontrollable, a spark from one of the pyres, or possibly set by someone deliberately, ignited the church. The fire soon got out of hand and the whole town eventually ended up ablaze. Unknown to the rioters, who were fully in a panic driven frenzy by this point, the fire got around behind them, and blocked off their escape. The result was quite horrific.
Amazingly, there were a few that escaped the inferno. A couple of the rioters came to their senses long enough to find a sheltered spot in the town square, likely in the fountain. Some of the patients survived as well. One went through a panic-induced change to animal form and escaped by forcing his way through a window that hadn't been boarded up very well. The mob ignored fully animal bodies; it was the partially transformed that drew their attention. Three others, who were just well enough to move, followed the changed victim out of the window and made it out of the town before collapsing.
Those in the clinic who could walk tried to flee once someone saw that the church was on fire. Many of the remaining doctors were heroes that day. They snuck out as many of their patients as they could while the hospital itself could still be entered safely. Some of the rioters, who had been looting the pharmacy, caught a few of the Flu victims that decided to leave on their own, as they made their way through the building. Apparently, the result wasn't pretty. The rioters didn't know what hit them.
That was all the information we could get out of Bobby before he excused himself and went back to rooting around in the rubble. He was obviously not in a healthy state of mind and kept mumbling about finding something, anything, which would help him in an attempt to get home. I asked him if he were with Dr. Rogers' group, in an attempt to bring him back to reality for a moment, and he said that he was. His voice became very heated and he almost changed completely to horse form. He was furious at Pam and the rest of the group, since they hadn't made any real attempt to get him out of the clinic, and were gone by the time he made it back to the ruins. He couldn't understand why they had left him, and how Pam and the others could go home, and he couldn't, especially since Pam had been sick too.
"What? No, I am not kidding. He actually said that, and yes he did have a right to be mad. He had no clue that Pam and the others had been forcefully escorted out of the area, and that anyone from the group who was ill was being shipped deeper into the quarantine zone. I know it was a harsh tactic, but the Mexican government was caught between a rock and a hard place. They couldn't allow the ill to infect others, and they couldn't force the healthy tourists to stay in the quarantine zone without the tourists' home government getting angry. They did what they did, and whether it was right or wrong doesn't matter now..."
While we couldn't do much about re-uniting him with Pam and the others, we offered to help Bobby find his way home. He refused and his eyes glazed over. He emphatically stated that there was no way we could help him -- not with us looking the way we did. He was very concerned with being seen with anything inhuman. It was as if, somehow, the very presence of an obvious victim of the Martian Flu would indicate to anyone in sight that he was not human anymore. Even with what he had done to escape, and telling us what he had done, he was blocking out the fact that he himself had changed. It was as if the words 'help getting home' had touched a button in his mind; he refused to acknowledge that he had a horse's head and was now extremely huge in stature. Our presence was also making him very nervous at this point.
Deciding not to distress Bobby further, we took our leave and headed for the archaeological ruins, where we would camp for the night.
We got to the ruins about seven in the evening, and spent the next two days having free run of the place. We holed up in the palace complex the first night; it had many good places to hide if we needed them, and wasn't as obvious a place for us to be hiding as the camp would be. We searched Pam's camp on the next morning, and on the floor next to her cot we found a letter she left for us. All of us were amazed when I read it out loud. The shocks started from the beginning. Pam headed the letter by greeting all four of us by name, and I know that she had no clue Sasha was even in the area. It was also dated the day we entered the ruins, followed by a smiley.
Pam wrote that the Mexican Army had taken Pam and the healthy crew to a place where they could return to the U.S. safely. Some early rioting in Ciudad de Palenque and San Cristobal had provided the Mexican Army a plausible excuse to escort any healthy foreigners out of the region. The letter also had a section of code that Pam had worked out, which she used in case of emergency. She had taught her colleagues working in the region how to decipher the code, so when I saw it, I knew what she wanted to say there was important.
The coded message said I should use my feline graces to investigate a new Jaguar Temple they'd just found that season, followed by directions to the temple. The un-coded text continued with a short list of those left behind. Then she congratulated us on Sasha's and my future wedding. This was followed by a cryptic little piece of poetry about looking into the eye of the cat where the secrets lie, and a statement, in code, assuring us that the note was not some sort of joke. There was even a P.S. to look in her foot locker for something we'd have need of immediately. Inside was one set of clothes for Sasha and I, and a note expressing her hope that they fit. Since our normal clothes were useless after the change, we were damned glad of a chance to dress instead of running around naked. While the clothes were a bit baggy, we were stunned that she could have even gotten close to our current sizes. I was getting creeped out, and up until then, I thought nothing could surprise me anymore.
We went to the location she described and saw a quaint little temple, badly in need of restoration. Inside was a cramped room with an altar and a broken jaguar statuette. I looked at the jaguar statue first, but found nothing. Then I looked closely at the altar, which was highly decorated with jaguar effigies. One of these had some damage where an eye should be; I poked at it and found what I thought was a crude attempt to restore the image. In reality, the 'repair' covered an ancient cylindrical hole in the altar with a few sheets of paper in it. These papers first said what happened from the time the first student got ill until they were to be escorted from the site. Some of her students started to become ill after trips to Ciudad de Palenque, and soon the whole camp was infected.
She then wrote that when she recovered from her bout with the illness, she knew important things that were going to happen next. She did not know everything by any means, but knew important information nonetheless. For some reason she knew not only when we would get to the camp, but where I, and only I, would find her notes. She had then written something about not being allowed to tell us everything, but that we would make it back. This was followed by the word 'eventually' in large, bold letters. Then she warned us not to get to the Veracruz area before a specific date, and advised us to make our way across the quarantine line within three weeks of reading the note, or something bad would happen. She followed by providing a set of directions giving, in her opinion, the safest route. Then there was some sort of cryptic bit about time being more than we assume it is and how it can be read if you look at it the right way. And she even thought it important that she re-assure us she wasn't dead, for some reason. The ending passage was a wish for Stan and Ralph to have a good journey in their boat and a warning not to get separated when they returned to the U.S.
"So your good buddy Pam is a fortune-teller," Spot interrupts. I could get to hate his voice. "Let me guess: She's a chronomorph whose memory works in reverse, right?"
"Look," I respond, "I have the note and other papers with me." The metal clipboard/case I used for protecting my notes on our digs is in the backpack; I pull it out, remove some time-worn papers from it, and deposit them in front of the horse. "You guys can read them if you want. In fact, there's even a passage in there where she writes that the horse I meet in the U.S. needs to see this! I wish Pam wasn't so damned cryptic, but you can see that she has no clue how or why she knows what she knows. She just gets the urge to write stuff down. This isn't unheard of, by any means. How did gypsy fortune tellers get their reputations? And, what about all that Nostradamus craze that was going on years ago?"
"Poetry vague enough to use as a Rorschach test? What about it?" the cheetah says. "Prophecy is all about self-delusion and wishful thinking. If Pam can clearly identify specific events before they happen, she's the first genuine precognitive ever -- guaranteed."
"Maybe so, but the concept of telling the future is an old one, and if these chronomorphs that the Docs in Louisiana kept talking about are a result of the disease, why can't 'knowing' the future be an aspect of this? With a disease as random as you claim, you can't have seen all the permutations yet, can you? I'm fairly certain that I wasn't on your list of possibilities when I walked in here." I smile at Jubatus. "I'm not trying to be contrary or obstinate here. I'm just relating what I saw. If I am wrong in my judgements, so be it, but I know what I saw..."
Anyway, after exiting the temple, I handed the papers to the others. They agreed that while Pam's message was spooky, we might as well take her advice. She'd been uncannily accurate before, so there was no reason to believe that she wasn't correct at that time either. It turned out to be a good thing we followed Pam's instructions, too. The date that we were not to reach Veracruz before was when the rioting there would be over, at least for a significant period. We figured that on foot it would take us longer to get there than that date, so it didn't concern us much. The three-week deadline, as it happened, was when an alliance of Guatemalan warlords attacked the Mexican security forces holding the quarantine line. Being on the Palenque side of the lines would have ended up getting us captured and conscripted, or worse.
On the third day in the ruins, we were politely asked by a group of Mayans to leave the ruins for a day or two. They wanted to hold a ceremony to "appease the old gods" in an attempt to stop what they called "the plague of the animals". They were very polite, mainly because they were convinced that we had the favor of these "gods", being changed as we were. Tapirs and rabbits were well represented in Ancient Mayan mythology, and Sasha and I represented something more. According to their leader, there was a vague reference to creatures that looked like us in the prophecies contained in the codex they carried. This reference had a glyph for respect beside it, but also one for unbeliever, at least that was what they said. When I asked to see it for myself they denied me, stating it was blasphemous to let unbelievers handle the sacred texts. Not wanting to cause any problems, especially in the cultural climate at that point, I didn't press the issue.
The leader continued that while they hated to rush us out of the site, they were certain their ceremony would not work if 'unbelievers' were in the ceremonial area. Since we were leaving the area soon anyway, we packed up our gear, along with some supplies that Pam Rogers had stashed at various places in the ruins. The locations of these stashes were on the last page of the papers from the temple. We then headed south on the roundabout path to the quarantine line that Pam had laid out for us.
We reached the line about two weeks later. On the way, we had a chance to discuss some of the unasked questions on our minds. The most pressing was the question of why Sasha and I were so different from any other 'Flu victims we'd run into so far. From all we'd seen, those who had been changed partially or fully into animals showed the characteristics of only one animal. We narrowed it down to the fact that we had both been in the "Well of the Souls" and the cenote at my project site. Both of these water sources had surrounding iconography depicting examples of people changed partially or wholly into animals -- lions in the Egyptian iconography, and jaguars in the Mayan. Both of us being exposed to the same sources could explain why we'd changed so similarly, even if not why we both had wolf traits on top of everything else. While this didn't explain the actual agent that triggered the change, we decided that the water in both places may have given the disease something to work with.
Sasha and I also found out during this leg in our journey that we shared an ability we hadn't known about earlier: we heal faster than normal. We found this out when we were shot at near San Cristobal. We tried to get some information and supplies there, and ran into a mob that wasn't in the mood to let us live. We fled through a farm and into the jungle. We were wounded in a barrage fired blindly by the farmer who was, basically, trying to hit anything that moved. He had been harassed by the mob for a week, and was trigger happy. He had been using his rifle liberally to protect his stores and property. Basically, he figured we were as good a target as any, and if he missed us, he would likely give the mob something to think about. I took a leg hit and Sasha got grazed by a stray round. Sasha's wound totally healed by the time we stopped to check the damage. My wound took a little longer, but the bleeding had stopped and the wound had begun knitting by the time we stopped. It was quite surreal to watch the rifle slug work its way out of the wound.
After that we avoided towns altogether. We also found it easier to travel naked, especially since we only had the one set of clothes, and there are things in the jungle that can be murder on fabric. We felt we would need them more if we ever did find a place where we could act civilized.
We knew when we got to the quarantine line, because we noticed the unmistakable signs of the trail that the patrols used. As we did in Guatemala, we decided to wait under cover and see just how frequently the area was patrolled. After figuring out the amount of time before the patrol would return, we waited for the next patrol to pass and attempted to cross the trail. We had no clue that the Mexican army had set out tripwire-rigged flares in the bushes. Stan set one off, which alerted both a listening/observation post we had just passed and the patrol we'd seen go past about ten minutes earlier. When the flare went off, bullets began flying in our general direction from the two soldiers in the listening post. The sound and nearness of death brought out a panicked reaction in all four of us.
Two things happened simultaneously. First, we split up in different directions, generally away from the gunshots. Luckily we set off no more flares in our rush to get away. Second, our fear had caused us to change: Ralph let out a shrill rabbit-like squeal and Stan reverted to tapir form. Sasha unconsciously changed into a wolf while she was fleeing, and in my panic I became a jaguar. Sasha and I didn't stop running for about four miles, and it took a bit longer to reconcile the fact that we were on all fours
"Curiouser and Curiouser," chimes in Wanderer. "Shapeshifting on top of souped-up healing? Next, you will be telling us you can lift a vehicle with your bare hands," he finishes with a jovial wink.
I smile back. "Sorry. While I did gain more strength than I had in my human body, what with all the new muscle arrangements and the amount of exercise I was forced into on my adventure, I know I can't lift a car. Jubatus' admirer was gave me my latest surprise, however. Wooden bats are easy to break. Apply enough force, it's done. Wooden bats with metal cores are different though. And before you ask, no, breaking it wasn't easy.
"I bet Dr. Stein would love to hear this... The torque I used to break that particular bat smashed up and dislocated the bones in my arm and hand pretty well. As you can see now, things are fairly back to normal."
"'Normal' being a relative term," Spot says. "You do realize you're up to five shapeshifters out of seven animorphs?"
This again. I sigh. "Look: The shapeshifting thing came as a major surprise to me, especially since it was brought on by stress. Maybe my healing process figured that since the DNA was there, shapeshifting to avoid damage was less work than healing the damage after it happened? I don't know. Maybe that's what happened with the bat, too. The healing seems to have a mind of its own, and maybe it figured that a broken arm was easier to heal than many bat-induced breaks would be. Your guess is as good as mine. I'd like to find out for sure, but until then, I'm not going to argue with it..."
Luckily, the patrol that was shooting at us didn't search for us after the first mile or so. They were called back because the officer in charge had decided that the soldiers in the listening post had overreacted to a normal animal accidentally setting off the flare. The light had only silhouetted both Stan, who was in tapir form by the time they saw him, and myself, in jaguar form. With the description they gave, the captain decided that the jaguar had been hunting the tapir and during the chase had set off a flare. The scream they heard was attributed to the tapir being startled by the flare during its panicked fleeing from the jaguar.
After we had come to terms with the new developments, Sasha and I began retracing our steps in order to find Stan and Ralph. Neither Sasha nor I were hit. We figured out as we searched that to change back to what was now our normal form, we had to 'nudge' the change mentally. From that point on we could control the change at will. By this time, Stan had already found Ralph huddled in the hollow of a fallen tree and looking more rabbit-like than normal. After calming him down, Stan realized that Ralph had taken a bullet in the arm. While performing first aid, Stan saw that the bullet had passed through Ralph's forearm, and luckily did not hit the bone. He had also been grazed across one of his ears, which were much more rabbity and had migrated to the top of his head. Stan himself only had a minor burn from the flare.
Sasha decided to use her wolf form to sneak back into the area where the flare was tripped and look for our gear, which was lost in the confusion. I used wolf form as well, in order to pick up the scent trail of Stan and/or Ralph. After finding the trail I was looking for, I followed it for a bit to get a general idea where the other two had gone. Fortunately, we found all of our stuff where it fell when we ran. Regrouping with Sasha and comparing notes, we headed out in the general direction that we hoped Stan and Ralph had kept running. We eventually picked up their scent trail and caught up with them about 2 miles north of where we'd stopped running.
After traveling through the hills for the rest of the night, we set up camp on a low hill and broke out the radio to catch the news. The Mexican government was reporting that they were getting things stabilized in the Mexican provinces bordering the Yucatan. Rioting and fighting between would-be warlords were still occurring in the areas around Merida, Valladolid and Campeche. Cancun was being reported as an island in the chaos, with most of the Army units in the peninsula that were cut off from the rest of the Army by the rioting having regrouped and now forming a perimeter around the city. Cancun was also where the greatest number of stranded tourists had found a refuge.
Also, there were reports of mass religious migrations moving between known Maya archaeological sites. Mayans, who were seeking a return to the 'old religion', sought to stop the plague by performing ancient rituals at these sites. Since the disease had shown up so close to the renewal period of the ancient Mayan calendar, they were trying to prevent what they saw as a new episode of creation. According to the ancient Maya, a new creation meant new types of creatures replacing the old, so you can see where they might feel some need to stop that from happening.
During this period, we listened to the radio early in the morning, spent our days sleeping and moved by night. The news reports indicated that things were calming down in Mexico. The gist of the reports was that the quarantine of the infected region appeared to have stopped the spread of the Martian Flu. The rioting was contained to the Yucatan and points south, supposedly. Us, we were certain that these reports were providing a false sense of security to the citizenry in the rest of the country. Our view was supported when we started to notice evidence of earlier rioting in the smaller villages that we were passing near. There wasn't supposed to be any of that on this side of the quarantine line. When word of this got out, the government would have a good deal of explaining to do.
When we came across larger towns that seemed to be relatively normal, we would send Stan in to pick up newspapers and whatever supplies we could afford. He was the only one of the group that could now pass as human for any period of time, and we really needed more information. Ralph stayed with us because he just hadn't been the same since the incident with the patrol. It seemed that he had more rabbit instincts than any of us realized, and the trauma of the event had caused him to retain more rabbit features.
The news Stan brought back contradicted what we heard on the radio. Word of mouth indicated that the Martian Flu had a major foothold in some of the poorer areas of the major cities. This was especially true in cities near the tourist centers. The government attempts to keep this a secret started breaking down over the next week or so, and panics began erupting in the cities soon after.
Here, a white rabbit morph speaks up for the first time: "If memory serves, that was just before the so-called 'hygiene riots' which very nearly toppled Mexico's then-current administration, was it not?"
"Yes. About a week after the rioting started, the news reporters on the BBC began describing how the United States was calling up troops to secure the border with Mexico. This was allegedly to prevent the violence and disease from spreading into Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. Even more disturbing were the reports that there was rioting and other forms of social disorder in the United States itself, including anti-technology movements. I still don't understand why technology was blamed, especially after genetic engineering was shown not to be involved. I guess the Luddites just needed an excuse to come out of hiding."
"If you think people are supposed to act sensibly, you must never have met any human beings," Jubatus says sarcastically. "Nine times out of ten, you can count on people to put the blame on whatever target's convenient, never mind if it makes sense or not. A satellite brought Martian Flu to Earth. Therefore, no satellite, no Martian Flu -- and all technology is evil. I can sum it all up in three words; 'Kill the messenger'."
Yes! My first chance to maybe give him some of his own medicine! "Like me, for instance?" I say with a smile and a cheerful wink... Okay. Maybe that wasn't a good idea. Spot is glaring at me again, but the lupines seemed to like it. A few chuckles drift over from the lupine table, especially from one guy in particular. Well, that part isn't any of my business. I just wish Spot could lighten up a little. Here I try to break the ice a bit more, and he gets defensive again. Great. Chalk up another social faux pas to the big cat in the front row...
It didn't take many news reports before we realized that whatever was happening in the U.S. was bad, mainly because the Government was bemoaning the lack of troops, in the process of trying very hard to convince people that things were under control. National Guard soldiers were being called up to quell 'small pockets' of civil unrest, while the regular Army was used to prevent Mexico's problems from crossing the border. Also to assist in this area, the Government had hired just about every construction company in the southwestern states to construct concrete moats and fortifications along the border. These fortifications were to be supplemented by a series of computerized sensors designed to inform the Army and Border Patrol of any breaches in security so the response would be more efficient.
Anyway, this news on the radio made it clear that even heading for the border was going to prove futile. There had to be a different way. We decided to head to the coast and see if we could find a boat to 'borrow'. They couldn't guard every inch of coastline, could they? Meanwhile, Ralph was becoming a basket case. He was so fixated on getting home, and every piece of bad news just kept nudging him further toward the edge of sanity. We tried to keep his spirits up, but it became harder as our routes of escape narrowed. Worse, the more stressed he was, the more rabbity he became -- and the farther he slipped away from human even when he calmed down. I know it wasn't healthy, but we soon started hiding the news from him, and even making things up, just to keep him calm.
We worked our way to the gulf coast and from there followed it north. Surprisingly, it was much easier to get food there. We ate so much fish I'm surprised I can still look at one without losing my appetite. We could even feel less guilty about eating fish; even though we'd run into a few fish-type morphs in our travels, it was clear that the 'Flu had a very strong preference for land-based forms. Getting the fish was not easy, however. We continued along the coast to the southern part of the city of Veracruz. Prior to the outbreak, this area was becoming one of the newer versions of Cancun. Coastal resorts were popping up all over the beaches in this region. The area to the south of Veracruz had been packed with foreign tourists at the time of the outbreak.
"I told you earlier that peace north of the quarantine line was short-lived. Well, as Sasha and I found out later, the investigation of what happened during the outbreak discovered that some of the early Flu victims had been in the Yucatan on arranged tours. These tours began with the Olmec sites near Veracruz and ended with Maya sites in the Yucatan. Palenque and Chichen Itza were the high points of most of the tours. Whether the tourists were infected before they came to Mexico or by contact with other tourists in the popular tourist attractions was never really determined. Given that the contagious period began well before any outward symptoms showed up, I doubt seriously whether anyone will ever know.
"Remember, nobody recognized the disease for what it was at first. If anyone had, the quarantine might have worked. As it was, however, with tourists leaving and entering these resorts every day, the quarantine was doomed to failure before it started. With tourists hunting for souvenirs in whichever cities and visiting quaint little villages for arts and crafts or seeing archaeological sites not on the tour routes, the spread was inevitable. The first wave of infected tourists in the Gulf Coast region actually made it out of the country before the disease became publicly known outside the Guatemalan jungle. As time passed, the medical staff hired by each resort soon became overwhelmed with sick tourists and sought medical help in the city. Some patients were transferred into city hospitals, at least until the doctors there realized what was going on. Within days people from the city began trickling into the hospital in the front of what soon became a flood.
"The rioting in Veracruz began soon after the hospitals became overwhelmed with the ill. This was when someone connected the symptoms of the disease that was causing the chaos in the Yucatan with what was going around the city. Graphic rumors and exaggerations of the strangest results of the disease spread out of the Yucatan after the quarantine started. A panic ensued, now that the disease was showing up where the government had assured the people that they would be safe. Disillusioned and fearing for their lives, the public began to organize into groups bent on stopping the spread of the disease through force. Since the resorts were the first locations that were quarantined due to the illness, they became the first target of the rioting..."
By the time we reached the resorts south of town, many of the compounds were black, rubble-strewn places that resembled small battlefields. Most of the buildings in each resort were burnt. Luckily, the first resort we came across still had its boathouse and main building mostly intact. Apparently, this resort was too far south to have drawn a large enough mob to destroy everything. After we checked the next four or five resorts we noticed that the closer you got to the city, the worse things looked. We headed back to the first resort to see what we could scavenge there.
There was a black painted cigarette boat left in the resort's boat house, and two boats that looked to be rigged for parasailing sunk at the dock. The boat in the boathouse had been overlooked, a very fortuitous case of 'out of sight, out of mind'. This one turned out to be in working order, except that we had to replace the old gas in the tanks. We drained and refilled the tanks with gas from the pumps in the boathouse.
Since the boathouse was not touched, their gas supply wasn't either. While Stan and I worked on the boat, and salvaged gear from the sunken boats at the dock, Sasha and Ralph confiscated what food hadn't rotted in the kitchen area in the main building. We were able to come up with a book of radio frequencies and a couple automatic weapons that were stashed in a secret compartment in the speed boat. It was beginning to look like these resort owners had another source of income besides tourism. Sasha and Ralph returned with enough canned goods to supply the boat for a few days, maybe long enough to get to the U.S. Coast. Any perishables were rotting, either on the shelf or in the now-useless freezer units.
As we worked, I noticed that Stan seemed to know his way around a boat. He said he'd spent a few years in the Coast Guard before being dishonorably discharged due to drug possession. Leaving him to finish his inspection of the boat to see if it was seaworthy, I started organizing the supplies Ralph and Sasha were bringing to the dock. After his inspection was over, Stan began watching what was going on in the small harbor and off the coast to get an idea if he could make a run for the open sea. By this time, Ralph was so excited at the thought of going home that his hands were as close to rabbit paws as you could get while still being usable as hands. He kept muttering about going home and not being able to stand being on the run and hiding out anymore.
About an hour later Stan said it looked clear close to the coast, but there appeared to be ships patrolling in deeper water maybe a mile or so off shore. The boat had a nice pair of binoculars with night capability that were likely used to help with whatever smuggling operation the resort was running on the side. Bolt cutters from the boathouse took care of the main door's padlock, and we kept watch near the boathouse until dark before doing anything else. Keeping out of sight might keep any curious patrol boats from coming over to investigate movement in a supposedly deserted area.
It was time for Sasha and I to split off from Stan and Ralph, as they'd originally planned. We were just too big and distinctive-looking; the boat couldn't hold either of us comfortably, and even if it could, our appearance was sure to attract too much of the wrong sort of attention, no matter what form we changed to.
If Stan made it back to the U.S. without getting caught, he promised to let our families and colleagues know that we were still alive. They would also see if they could organize a rescue effort. We had no real idea of how bad things were there, or that we were being sought by the U.S. Government. We were able to piece together that our disappearance was important to someone in the United States, but not why we were as important as we seemed to be. Our main clue that something was up was that our expedition was the only one referenced by name during the months after this whole thing started.
We felt that Ralph was really in no condition to go either, but he couldn't be convinced to stay with us. By the time we gave up trying to change his mind, he was so rabbit-like from the stress that he'd actually shrunken down small enough to hide in one of the 'secret' storage lockers under the seats. He took to the small space right away, saying that he felt safer there.
Stan spent the rest of the day looking at charts of the harbor and showing us where to stow the scrounged rations and equipment they were taking with them. Sasha and I were able to keep our radio, since the boat had one of its own.
When midnight came around Sasha and I changed to wolf form and ran south of the resort to a high place where we could stand and watch Stan drive the boat out of the harbor. We found a good spot about an hour after we left the resort, and were just in time to see Stan make his run out of the area. We watched him for about ten minutes, after which he was too far away for even our enhanced night vision to pick the boat out. We thought we saw another ship light up a little and move toward where Stan had gone, but couldn't be sure. Sasha and I held each other for another half hour as we both wished as hard as we could that Ralph and Stan would make it home, and at the same time being disappointed that we couldn't be with them. Pam's message said they'd make it, but at moments like those written assurances are not enough. We were also concerned about her vague warning for them not to get separated. What did that mean? We had no idea.
Sighing in resignation and leaving a prayer following in their wake, we headed out to try to earn enough money so we could buy our way across the border when things settled down.
"'Earn money'? How?" Spot asks. Man, doesn't he ever talk without making the speaker feel as if they must be making it up as they go along? Whatever is under his skin must really be in there deep. This guy needs a dose of that Don't Worry, Be Happy song from the eighties... Spot continues, "I thought you said you couldn't show your face without getting shot at."
He's annoying, but he does have a point. "You're forgetting the Mayans. They liked me and Sasha just fine."
"So you've spent the last 30-plus years doing odd jobs for Mayans."
"At first, yes. And with so many people coming down with SCABS, pretty much everybody knew someone who'd changed without becoming a berserk monster, so the populace was becoming less fearful of us all the time. Keep in mind that the day that Stan and Ralph left was almost nine months after this whole fiasco started. A lot of the fighting had settled itself out, at least south of the quarantine line. The line itself disintegrated when rioting broke out in the rest of the country. The Army was weakened by the disease and stopping the warlords, and almost completely fell apart when news broke out that nowhere was safe, but a nucleus held firm. Meanwhile, the warlords kept spending their strength on attacking each other and the remnants of the Army, so they were becoming increasingly less of a problem. While rioting raged in the north for another month or two, an eerie equilibrium was setting up in the Yucatan. About a year and a half after the Martian Flu reared its ugly head, people started to realize that there was really nothing that could be done about the disease, and life should go on. So it wasn't that long before Sasha and I could walk down a crowded city street without anyone wanting to kill us on sight. Yell insults or make the sign of the Evil Eye, yes; kill, no..."
Well, I won't bore you with all of the details of the next twenty odd years. Suffice to say that we spent the first three years or so traveling. We found a few new sites and scraped together what money we could earn doing odd jobs. Having learned to survive in the jungle we had a fairly comfortable existence. It wasn't luxurious by any standard, but even with the paranoia surrounding us, we made do. We ran into Jose again about four years after Ralph and Stan left. He was having a field day studying all of the new changes that were taking place in Mexican society, especially religious. A new religion was taking shape in the region, giving the people a new cornerstone on which to build their lives.
The patriarchs of the Revived Ancient Mesoamerican Church, as they were calling themselves, had hired Jose to find out what he could about the pre-Columbian Mayan ceremonial centers. They would incorporate this information into the religion and work to return these sites to their former glory, or at least preserve them for future generations. His cause was helped when a week after he had been hired, Jose had been able to lay his hands on a couple pre-Spanish Conquest codices. These books were unknown to anyone except those in the small village that had been hiding them. Each generation had religiously followed their ancestors' directive to preserve them in secret until just such a religious revival occurred.
When he showed up in town to ask if the locals knew of any ruins, the town elders took one look and gave him the books outright. They assumed he was working for the Church, since they had been very vocal about their need for archaeological information. I mean, he's with the Church, he's part-jaguar, he must be a shaman, right? News spread fast, and it was all he could do to record all of the information he was given, especially after people from neighboring villages started showing up with their own information on protected items.
The Church was so grateful for this that he could pretty much write his own ticket as long as he worked for them. He was funneling what information he was getting, including photos of the codices, back to friends in the U.S. He'd also gotten off some information to our University, letting a mutual friend of ours know that Sasha and I were still alive, at least as of the last time he'd seen us. He had not received any return information besides a terse note to hold off until circumstances were better. A few months after this message, his wife sent him a note that said we were persona non grata at the moment. Someone in the Government was actively trying to get any information he or she could on us, for what reason, no one knew.
About two months before we re-united with Jose, he received another very short note stating that Ralph had shown up alone at the office of our contact in Baton Rouge. This happened about a month and a half after he left us in Veracruz. He looked bedraggled and exhausted, but otherwise healthy. Our friend felt that he could now relay a short message about the visit since the State Department had declared us dead, and apologized for being so terse earlier. Since there had been no sign of any of the group since the rioting broke out in Guatemala, they decided that we were likely victims of the violence. Our friend felt that the Government would not be perusing every single e-mail at the university anymore, so he could finally send out something without getting anyone in trouble.
A second note, received by Jose about a week before we showed up, said government agents had searched both Sasha's and my offices and our apartment. Whatever they were looking for, they hadn't found it. One of the investigators, who said he was with the Department of State, wasn't very happy about it. The paperwork we brought back from Egypt was of particular interest to this one agent. He went ballistic when he found it didn't say what he wanted it to. He apparently got so mad that he burned the papers right there in the office. This agent, and a separate team from the F.B.I., had also asked everyone we knew about our time in Egypt and Guatemala. They said they didn't want Jose or any of the students for anything other than information. The F.B.I. team stated that Sasha and I were going to be detained pending possible charges. The State Department official apparently had a more vindictive motive. He was overheard mumbling something about not waiting for the legal process to bring us to 'justice'. What we were being charged with no one would say.
Finding out that we'd be in trouble even if we did get back to the U.S., we decided that the safest thing to do was take a job working as Jose's assistants. Basically we could do research out in the jungle where it would be very hard to find us. We would gain the protection of the organization that was forming around the revived Mesoamerican religion. This new Church was taking the place of the Roman Catholic Church in the region, with much the same power. They didn't ask that we convert, but they enthusiastically welcomed our help because they really wanted what information we could get.
We devised a plan where we would meet Jose and a few Church leaders every six months in a random location sent to us by e-mail. The Church had provided us with solar-powered satellite-linked laptops. We kept our notes on them; once a week, we'd download everything to the Church mainframe on an encrypted channel. While we would have access to the internal e-mail system, we would not be able to access the internet for our own safety. Jose would make contact daily, just to make sure things were going well, and download news of interest. Any direct access to the web could compromise our existence. Our employers also decided that they would give us credentials that would be respected in the region, eventually including Guatemala and Honduras. We would get new identities -- a Church administrator with a sick sense of humor assigned me "Wolfshadow" -- to further protect the knowledge that we were alive.
"They built a religion around what the Martian Flu did down there?" says one of the lupines, disbelievingly.
"They sure did, and it now forms a strong basis for society in the area. But at this point, they were just getting their legs under them, so to speak. With the new status the Church was obtaining in the region at that point, and given the still present paranoia, there was some concern that a holy war would break out. Fortunately, the Pope himself defused tensions between the Mesoamerican Church and the local Catholics. He declared that in repentance for its past sins against the natives of the region, the Mother Church would not force Roman Catholicism upon them. The Mesoamerican Church, for its part, held on to the Catholic teachings as well. They did this by building on the adaptations that had developed by the local populace in the centuries prior to the outbreak. Considering themselves a branch of the Catholic Church, they later applied for the same level status the Greek Orthodox Church holds..."
As part of our work for the Church, we (including Jose) were able to return to our camp and see the remains for ourselves. We spent a month finishing the mapping of the structures in the site, after which the Mesoamerican Church took over administration. They were going to turn the site into a spiritual center, especially after we had explained to them what we thought the cenote was. They were also interested in rebuilding many of the other sites we found. We convinced them that things would be better at these sites if they just kept them cleared until they could be excavated. After systematic excavation of the structures they could reconstruct as much of the architecture as we could be sure what it looked like. Excavations were few and far between, at least by Sasha and I. Most of the time we were working for them, the Church was more concerned with locating and mapping new sites. Most of the excavating was done by teams hired and trained by Jose.
During the period we worked for it, the Revived Ancient Mesoamerican Church increased its power and standing among the people of the region through good works. The thing that sealed their place in the region, however, was the hiring of mercenaries and former military personnel from around the world, to form a security force. This force was designed to deal with the growing problem of slaver parties. One slaver party even tried to capture Sasha and I, but they got a rude awakening. There are about thirty people who won't be enslaving anyone ever again, you can count on that.
We found out when things resolved themselves that this slaver party was 'special'. They had been hired by someone with big connections in the United States. They had been supplied with a hacker who had broken into the Church's mainframe and gotten what information they could on us. They then used this door into the Church's computer system to engineer a fake meeting with Jose, concerning our status in the U.S. We were concerned, because this message said we should meet in a bar (which we'd never done before) and the phrasing wasn't like Jose, but we couldn't take a chance that we were being paranoid. We also couldn't risk being stupid, so I had Sasha hide somewhere outside the bar in case it was a set up.
I entered the bar and didn't see Jose or anyone else I recognized. Ordering a drink, just to be polite, I decided to wait to see if Jose was just late getting to the bar. It was a Mickey Finn; I actually did notice the scent of the 'extra ingredient', but not having to smell many chemicals out in the jungle, I had no idea it was a knockout drug -- I thought it was just cheap liquor. The dose of whatever it was probably would have killed a normal person, because even with one swallow it dropped me pretty hard.
The thugs from the slaver party manhandled me through the back door and into a van in an alley behind the bar. They weren't very nice about it either. They almost broke my leg twice and rang my head off the doorframe in their hurry to get me in the van. I was already starting to come out of the drug-induced stupor when they tied me up, just in case. That really hurt. My arms don't go back as far as they used to, but they somehow got my hands tied behind my back. Even though I was in a lot of pain, I played dead after I heard them tell the guy in back with me to shoot me with as much horse tranquilizer as he needed to keep me out. He was also given permission to do anything he wanted to me if I moved, as long as I wouldn't die too soon from what he did. They wanted a confession, video and audio recordings both, and I couldn't do that if I was dead. They were very disappointed that I showed up alone, but they felt that having me was good enough for their purposes.
Jose was also invited to the meeting by another fake 'emergency' message attributed to us. Since it didn't have any of the code words we'd arranged during our face-to-face meetings, he knew something was up. He got to the bar with a couple of Church security people about 2 minutes after I was thrown into the van. One of the security people got the license number off the van as it sped by, nearly running them down. After they entered the bar and forced the bartender to tell them what happened, they started looking for me. Sasha joined them as they exited the bar, and she blew her top after she learned what happened. It was all Jose could do to calm her down and make her realize she had a better chance of saving me if they worked together. After about a week of computer work following blind leads and other espionage type computer security, they found the abandoned hemp plantation I was being held in.
I didn't know help was on its way. My captors tried to keep me drugged up most of the time. The only times I wasn't drugged, they were trying to force me to tell where my wife was and confess to a myriad of illegal activities in the U.S., Egypt, and Guatemala. They really wanted me to confess, because they used just about every pain-inducing torture in the book. I had two points in my favor: First, they had no clue about my healing ability. Second, they didn't know much about the body language of animals. It took all the acting I could muster to sucker them into thinking their drugs were still working as they expected. They fell for it though, not recognizing all of the subtle hints my body was giving to the contrary. By the time Jose, Sasha and a large contingent of the Church's security force had deployed to attack the compound, the drugs were having no effect at all and my captors knew my healing wasn't normal.
Of course, they'd have had to be idiots not to notice that the wounds and broken bones they left me with were pretty much healed within a couple days. Not having any directives which covered 'What To Do When The Victim Gets Better', these guys just followed the torture manual. Slowly. Since I wasn't begging for mercy by late on the sixth day, they decided to try a different tact. If I didn't cave in from my own personal pain, maybe they'd get better results from torturing other captives, and saying their torture was my fault. They didn't know how close they came to getting me to give in when that started. Lucky for me, the head honcho put a stop to that, fast -- not because of any moral objections, but because damaged property carried lower prices on the slave market. I was roughly dragged back to my cell, in a slight delirium as my body worked to heal the wounds given to me earlier that day (which helped a bit with the drugged out act), and again hung by my shackles from a hook in the ceiling. As I was dragged I heard a conversation between the head slaver and his torture expert over letting him continue torturing others in front of me, since he was convinced it was working.
I hung there for a few hours, barely off the floor, as my body healed and my mind wandered, replaying what I had last heard over and over. By the time my healing process let me regain full consciousness, I'd made up my mind that my torturer wasn't going to get his wish. I convinced myself the pain of ripping my hands out of the shackles was no worse than what they would do when they returned, and I needed to do it ASAP so I would have time to heal before they started in on me again. So that's what I did. And it wasn't any worse than what they'd already been doing to me. As I waited for my bones to realign and my blood to stop flowing, I decided that the bastard who liked to torture me so much needed to have the favor returned -- him and his boss, both. My healing kicked in big time at this point, and I was out of it for about an hour. That left me with four hours to plan my next move.
Let's just say... my captors got a nasty surprise when they came for me the next morning. Lots of blood, lots of deep cuts, lots of exposed bones. I am not proud of what I did to my torturer and many of his compatriots, but I figure they had it coming. They especially had to pay for what I had seen them do to that poor seal morph in order to make me talk. For months afterward, I had nightmares about the resulting slaughter, and that is a nice description of it, and what I saw in the compound later. My mind still rebels against what I had do, but I had no choice in the matter. If they had run, only my torturer would likely have need fear what I was going to do, but...
I waited at the doors until I heard the peons coming to take me for my morning beating. As they paused to unbar the door, their confidence took a major hit. I guess my literally ripping the doors off their hinges was enough to make them go for their guns. Until I ripped their arms off. Literally. Three bullet wounds and four dead thugs later, I headed to the room where my tormentor waited. A couple thugs brought by the gunfire didn't last long either, even with one of them getting lucky enough to hit me in the shoulder as I pounced. I don't ever want to see that much blood or body parts that belong inside a person again. With all the pain, I'm afraid I sort of lost it for a few minutes. What I did wasn't the coldest thing I saw that day though. Jose ordered all the bodies left where they were... So the buzzards could eat.
Anyway, more gunfire erupted outside the building as I single-mindedly...
Okay, why is everyone staring at me like that? Stupid question. I damn well know why they're staring. And... that cheetah finally quit smiling! Unfortunately, that stone-faced expression isn't an improvement. His eyes... brrr! He really is scared of something, and I hope it's not me. It's almost as if I have proven myself the monster I claim not to be. A few of the patrons are even glancing around for a place to go in case I go postal right in front of them. Maybe I'd better explain it a bit better...
"Look, those were extraordinary circumstances." Spot isn't even listening at the moment. It's like he's running a scenario through his mind, and not liking what he sees. "I would like to know how you people would have acted differently. I was being drugged, tortured and threatened with not only my death, but my loved ones and even the lives of innocent people. What was I supposed to do? Sit there while they tortured people to get me to talk? Confess to every lie they threw at me, and then be dragged back to the States to stand trial in a kangaroo court bent on making me and my wife the scapegoat of the whole Martian Flu outbreak? And believe me, that was the point of the whole exercise. My captors made it very clear what they wanted me to take responsibility for. Imagine being bombarded with the information every day for a week as they tortured you that you were a wanted criminal and you would be hung out to dry, and anyone associated with you would suffer the same fate. I found out when I got back, that my confession was meant to save some idiotic Government official whose career was ruined because he jumped to too many conclusions, and would have definitely resulted in my wife and I being summarily executed.
"But, most of all, it came down to the point where I wasn't going to let any more innocent people get hurt because they wanted to railroad me." A few heads are nodding at this point, but Spot looks worse than ever. "What I had was Hobson's Choice, and all of the alternatives sucked. I could let them torture others to get a confession out of me. I could confess to stuff that wasn't even close to true and sentence at least my wife and I, and maybe even Jose and the others who survived, to death either by the government, or by angry mobs that would likely not even let us make it out of the courtroom. I could try to escape, but the compound was very well guarded and I'm not bulletproof, so I would either have to resort to killing anyway to get out or get all shot up and be back in the same dilemma. And even if I had gotten away, those guys would still be after me and still be putting innocent people into a life of slavery.
"Remember, I was alone as far as I knew. No police, no other legal authority, and if Sasha hadn't shown after a week, when would she ever? Given no other real alternative, I decided to take the only way out I saw that would result in both my getting away, and save as many lives as possible." I don't know how much telling the truth about what happened will help, but at least Spot isn't sneering any more. It is almost as if he understands what I am saying from a point close to where I am coming from. Has he lived through any similar kind of Hell? "Let's put it this way: Those slavers had basically declared war on me, and you don't win wars with flowers and kisses."
Dead silence, which stretches until someone... Spot... finally says, "So you escaped from your cell, got rid of some slavers, and sucked up four bullets. What happened next?' Hey, that is the most civil he has been to me yet. Why now all of a sudden? Better not to look a gift horse in the mouth.
With the sound of gunfire outside barely registering, I headed for my target. Finding the door to the room barred, I ducked out of the way just in time for someone inside to send a whole clip of bullets through said portal. As the shooter re-loaded, I kicked the door in. The door was re-enforced, but it couldn't hold up against a foot backed up by my 600+ pound frame.
The look on my target's face was classic, at least it was before he had to duck out of the path of the door. I was on him before he could recover. Anyway, with him out of the way, but still on the adrenaline the high stress situation was causing, I quickly scanned the room for any other thugs. The only other living thing in the room was my former torturer's intended target of the morning, what looked to be an adolescent female housecat morph. She was holed up in a far corner and almost feral from terror. Being unable to help calm her, I told her to wait in the room until the shooting was over (the sound of gunfire outside was still going strong) with the hope that some part of her mind was still coherent and rational.
Quickly checking my injuries, I found the shoulder wound to be the worst. Two of the others were creases where I'd been grazed by errant shots, and were healing fairly quickly. The third of the earlier wounds had left a bullet in my thigh without hitting the bone. My left shoulder was open, some bone was visible, but the healing had slowed the blood flow to a trickle. That wound needed to be fixed, but I didn't have time at that moment, so I decided to let my supercharged genetics deal with it. Ignoring the cat morph's terrified hisses, I left the room and headed for the main door to the compound. By this time I'd calmed down enough to assess the situation better. I opened the door and looked out to see what was going on. I saw people whom I later learned were the Church security forces in a firefight with most of the surviving slavers.
My conscience being still fully intact, my first move was to go take care of the guards at the buildings holding the other captives. I chalked up four other guards in that trek, including one who figured he ought to kill his charges before they could be set free. That guard I actually felt no remorse for. The others might just have been doing their jobs, distasteful as they were, but killing innocents signed this guy's death warrant. I forced open the doors to the cells once the guards were dispatched. I took a couple more hits, one in the chest, during this fray, but my determination to see the other victims safe and get the leader were driving me on.
This is when I found out the lengths that Sasha would go to find me if I were missing. Believe me, you don't want to find out for yourselves. Let's just say she would give a mother grizzly a run for her money. The resistance to the Church security forces had lessened by the time I exited the slave quarters, and just about died out altogether as I strode across the main plaza of the compound to the hacienda where the leader resided. The doors were ripped off their hinges, and I smelled the stink of blood and cordite coming from inside. I soon found out why. There were bodies all over the place, only a few of which were shot, and intense screaming coming from the leader's office. I went through the doors that should have been baring me from the rat bastard scumbag that thought he was so much better than a lowly deformed freak, in time to see Sasha standing over him.
The guy was barely noticeable as human through all the blood on him. He kept babbling his name, rank and serial number, and he wasn't Mexican. He was American and he sounded like someone with military experience with what he was repeating. From the look in his eyes, it was obvious that any information that he might have stored in his twisted brain wasn't going to be forthcoming. Any trace of sanity in them was gone.
Jose forced his way by me and it was all he could do to convince Sasha to let the Church deal with him. It became easier once Jose pointed out that I was here and needed her help with my wounds. My newer wounds were bad, not that I'd actually noticed until this point. When the adrenaline went away, the pain washed over me and I almost passed out as my healing took over. Sasha mothered me back to health over the next two or three days.
Anyway, Jose's search of the hacienda turned up something more disturbing. This slaver party was not an independent force. Jose found a hidden stash of paperwork in a floor safe under the desk. Several of the papers were communiqués on U.S. Department of Interior stationery that ordered this group to do what they needed to get us to confess. One of these letters basically said "we've paid you enough, so why haven't you done your job?" No name for this government official who hired the slavers was given on any of the papers though. Since they definitely mentioned a meeting between the head slaver and his employer, that information was locked away forever in the brain of a madman. Since we could follow that lead no further, we filed it away for future consideration.
"Despite this incident, or perhaps because of it, the Church has done a fine job of keeping the slavers in check. They've also quelled the general persecution of Flu victims as well by fully accepting morphs as members. These actions have earned them the enthusiastic sanction of the governments in the region. They have some of the finest experts in the world for dealing with slavers and for psychologically returning Scabs to normalcy in human society. As I can attest, they do really good work. I hope you can see that I really am not the monster those actions would make me out to be."
After our first slaver incident, the Church assigned two Scab bodyguards with special-forces experience to each of us. Those poor guys did much more walking than they were prepared for, but the only way to find new sites at that point was to stumble upon them. Our bodyguards turned out to be good students as well, and would help us in our work as much as possible. I've lost track of just how many sites we did find, but it was enough that archaeologists should be busy with them well into the next century.
After about 20 years of roaming around the Yucatan, Jose broke the news to us that we were not hunted by the U.S. government anymore. A hacker had gotten into the State Department mainframe about a year before and leaked the entire record of the investigation targeted at us. The hacker also released the information on the Beagle Probe. The then-current administration claimed not to know that this investigation had even taken place. Soon after the leak, they declared us to have been unjustly targeted and tried to make amends with our families. Since we were declared dead, however, the only other thing they could do was try to clear our reputations.
That wouldn't be easy though. The publicity at the time was not kind to us, even if they did try to keep the reasons for the investigation quiet. Unnamed sources leaked some very damaging falsehoods about us, and I doubt if the later retractions had much impact. Those who knew us had no doubts about us, but you know how the public can be... Not too long after the declaration of our innocence, Stan and Sharon took advantage of the good press and made their stories known. Pam also broke her silence on the matter at that point as well. Their stories created quite a stir in a few areas. You may have read the stories, I don't know. I don't know what the effect truly was, but for us, hearing them, and what the government said in apology, lifted some of the weight of the world off our shoulders. We finally started to think about going home again, but had quite a bit to tie up in Central America before we could leave.
The newspaper articles covering the investigation of the "shocking misdeeds of a previous administration", and those covering Stan and Sharon's stories, were e-mailed directly to Jose by this mysterious hacker. Along with the articles were copies of the actual F.B.I. investigation records. Jose got these e-documents about two weeks after he got the e-mail telling him we could go home.
Not long after we found out we weren't being hunted any longer, we decided we'd been in Central America long enough. We got married about 3 months after we took the job working for Jose, and after doing archaeology for close to 25 years without many breaks we needed a change of scenery. Jose had decided to return to the U.S. as well, and he would leave the Church once he tied up his remaining loose ends. The Church gave us money for the trip back and provided us with transportation to the nearest town with a U.S. embassy. When we reminded them that we still hadn't figured out who in the government had sent that slaver party after us, they agreed that we should take a different route back.
We rode connecting busses from Merida to Mexico City, and then took a non-stop bus from there to Juarez, where we found the restrictive border arrangements still in place. We had enough money left to bribe the guards on both sides of the border to let us through. Since this didn't leave us enough to pay for transportation, we had to head back to Baton Rouge on foot. That trip wasn't too eventful. We had a run-in with one group of idiots outside Houston, but that ended about the time the soberest of the group got a really good look at us.
Once we got back to the campus, we created quite a stir, as no one there had any idea of our present appearance. Our looks caused quite a few shocked expressions anyway. It especially caused a stir when I tried to enter my former office and found another professor in there. I'll bet he got the shock of his life when I opened the door.
After the current dean finally asked us to identify ourselves, we had to endure endless questions about what had happened over the past thirty-odd years. When their curiosity was satisfied, they got around to updating us on the current status of the department. There was no going back and teaching for us. The faculty positions were full, and the school was facing layoffs due to budget cuts. The university did offer us jobs working in the Scab Relations department. We explained to them that we were archaeologists, not sociologists or public relations people, and declined the offer. Then they gave us our physicals and sent us up here.
"Anyway, that is the gist of things up until this point. Like I said earlier, the information on the discs is much more detailed, and may answer any lingering questions you might have. That is at least until we can arrange that appointment with..." Okay, something has finally clicked. The horse morph is staring at me like he has a million questions. He's almost greedily glancing at the discs with the medical info as I put them back in the backpack, and he looks like he's got a good deal of authority here. I'll just bet... "That satisfy your curiosity, Dr. Stein?"
"Yes." The horse looks a bit sheepish. "I couldn't really identify myself without first knowing your true agenda, since doing so could result in a rather painful situation. And your kind of healing is a luxury I don't have." This is followed by a rueful shake of his head. "Just to make things shorter, wouldn't you mind giving me the medical information now so that I can confirm some of your story?"
"I'm sorry," I reply, "but I would feel better if I could give it to you in a more official setting. Talking about what I have done is one thing, but the medical information is a bit more personal, if you get my drift. Besides, I have the feeling you are going to want to run some tests of your own, and wouldn't you rather see what you come up with, rather than having some sort of idea what to expect beforehand? In my work, I find that important stuff can be missed because of assumptions and expectations. And I also have faith that there is enough information on those discs for you to have one of your computer whizzes to verify it quick enough."
He nods in resignation then asks: "You will show up for the physical when I ask, won't you?"
"I will do so if it will help, but we really need to get settled in someplace first."
"Well, plan on that happening. As I mentioned earlier, even one multi-species animorph is rare, let alone a matching pair, and I don't want to pass up this chance. What hotel are you staying at? Can I have someone" -- here, Stein looks over at Spot with a don't question me stare -- "give you a ride back there?"
"That would be nice, but it's not necessary. I have done more walking over the past 30 or so years than any normal person, so the eight or so mile walk back to the motel isn't really a problem. Plus, I doubt that most of you here have a car I fit in anyway. Even that monstrosity of an SUV would be cramped. And I certainly wouldn't want to put Mr. Jubatus, or anyone else, through the trouble. The motel we're at actually caters to Scabs, but if Sasha has found Stan, we probably won't be there after tonight. It is a nice motel though. Got a Scab-friendly diner attached to it that is run by a Skunk morph, of all people."
Anything else? Oh, yes -- "The phone number on the CD is Stan's. You should be able to get a message to me there." I pick up my gear from the booth, and extract $50 dollars of the hundred that I keep in there for emergencies. I walk over to the bar and drop the fifty in front of Donnie. "Hopefully this will pay for a round for everyone, to apologize a bit for the issues I caused here today." I nod at the crowd and walk outside.
The Sun must have set while I was talking. Still, while the streets are dark, my spirits aren't. I may have made a lousy first impression, but somewhere in there, even Spot eased up a little... Maybe we can make a life together up here, Sasha and I.