|A day shy of a week ago Robotech Master was out on his e-bike when an SUV struck him and drove off. According to the most recent news available, he passed away from his injuries at around 2:00 this morning. I have kept some news up on his user page and, at this point, ask that anyone wishing to leave messages or tributes do so on either his talk page or another page that can be used for such things. His account here and all of the stories he has gifted the Shifti community with will be preserved in memoriam, as we also did for Morgan.|
The Day the Universe Changed
|Winds of Change story universe|
I'm not a morning person; I tend to wake slowly, spending a long time lying in bed and trying to avoid becoming fully aware of the world around me. But today I was dragged more quickly toward consciousness by an incredibly annoying itch on my calves, and jolted the rest of the way by the pain when I tried to scratch it with a toe. That hurt! I winced and wondered when the last time I'd trimmed my toenails was; they definitely needed it again.
I glanced at the clock, and groaned quietly; it was 6 o'clock, way earlier than I usually got up. My roommate, John, wasn't even up yet. But I was fully awake now and the itch wasn't likely to let me get comfortable again despite the slight relief when I used my heel to rub it instead. Might as well get up, I thought, and pulled aside the covers. And stared in horror at my legs, the last traces of grogginess eradicated by sudden fear.
My calves itched because of the thick new growth of brown hair on my lower legs; my toenails had scratched so painfully because they had doubled in length overnight, becoming sharp and almost clawlike. "What the hell?" I whispered as I reached down to feel them with my hand, stunned. I'd never heard of anything like this happening before, and I was taking lots of biology courses. Then I flinched, pulling my hand away as if burned, as I noticed that the hair was suddenly thickening before my eyes. I gave a small gasp at the sensation and stared my legs until the growth stopped again a moment later. I wriggled my toes, trying to dispel the unnerving tingling sensation left over, and glanced across the room at John's bed to see if he was awake yet.
"Oh, man!" I muttered under my breath. John was still asleep, but something seemed to be happening to him too; his face was clearly different. His nose looked small and flat, his cheekbones high and arched, his lips thin, his forehead slightly sloped; not only did he not look like the John I knew yesterday, but he didn't even look all that human. A look of discomfort passed over his strangely altered features and he turned on his side with a groan; I saw that his ears were slightly pointed and getting pointier as I watched. Then the surge of change stopped again, leaving me wondering what to do next.
"Wake him, obviously," I muttered to myself. Pulling my pyjama legs back down over my furry calves and hoping my bare feet would pass as fuzzy slippers at first glance, I sat on the edge of my bed and called out to him quietly. "Hey, John. Wake up, something weird is going on!"
That was all it took; John was a light sleeper, and his eyes opened immediately. He blinked. "That was a weird dream..." he said in a soft velvety voice, then tried to clear his throat. "Ahem. What's going on?" John frowned, obviously disturbed by the strange sound of his voice, and rubbed his neck.
"Are you feeling okay?" I asked, "Your face..." I gestured stupidly, not exactly sure what to say. If it turned out that I was hallucinating, a rather worrying possibility considering what I was seeing, I didn't want to make too much of a fool of myself before I caught on. On the other hand, if I wasn't hallucinating...
John slid his hands upward, and his jaw dropped in shock; he clearly felt something wrong. I didn't know if that was a relief or not; it meant that this was real. Without saying a word John jumped to his feet and hurried into the bathroom; an instant later he emitted a startled yelp as he looked into the mirror. "What the hell's happened to me?" he demanded, velvet voice edged sharply with fear.
"I don't know," I muttered as I stood up and looked down at my feet; they remained furry, just as I remembered. I curled my toes and felt my pointed nails dig into the carpet slightly. The changes were real. "Oh, boy." John was still staring into the mirror, rubbing his face; I walked over to the bathroom door and touched his arm. He flinched, staring at me with wide eyes that betrayed approaching panic. I couldn't help but notice that his teeth looked remarkably pointed, and that his pupils were significantly taller than they were wide; he looked vaguely feline, definitely dangerous. I shied back slightly even though I outweighed him easily.
"What the hell is happening to me!?" he repeated harshly, gripping my shoulders; I didn't have an answer, and muttered a demure "I don't know." He released me and sat down on the toilet, a stunned expression on his face; I squared my shoulders and tried to recover some of my confidence and control. "Look, just stay calm; Whatever's happening, we've gotta keep cool. I'm sure its not serious."
At that very moment, as if to mock my advice, I heard a faint scream from somewhere else in the dorm. It was muffled by the soundproofing, but even so I could hear the panic in it. John heard it too, and his pointed ears actually twitched; that was almost as unnerving to me as the scream itself, though John himself apparently didn't notice. We kept silent for a moment to listen; there were no more screams, but there was a faint undertone of activity in the building usually absent at this early hour. I glanced wordlessly to John, and then walked over to the door and opened it a crack; I couldn't see anyone, but I could hear urgent talking more clearly. There were a lot of scared people out there, and there seemed to be more every minute. I closed the door again.
"It's happening to others?" John asked quietly. I shrugged, and pulled up one pyjama leg up to my knee to display the fur. "I guess so" I said mildly, too overwhelmed to put much emotion into it. John's eyes widened even further as he stared at my legs, noticing the changes for the first time. "Holy shit!" he muttered under his breath. Then he groaned and clutched his head, and I actually saw his skin ripple slightly as another surge of change began. My impolite stare only broke when the itch suddenly returned to my legs, this time on my thighs, and I realized it was happening to me as well. I quickly sat on the floor and pulled my pyjamas as far up as I could, watching in amazement and horror as my entire leg was quickly covered with fur. My toenails also thickened and darkened, I noticed afterwards, becoming even more clawlike, and the hair on my forearms seemed to thicken slightly too.
Busy running my fingers through my new hair in amazement, I glanced up at John and then did a double-take, staring at him in awe at the change. His head had completely different. His old hair had fallen out, being replaced with a tawny yellow-brown fur; his lower face had pushed outward slightly into a short muzzle; his ears were erect and wedge-shaped, located farther towards the top of his head; his forehead had been reduced even further, and his chin too; and his eyes were a most amazing green and purely cat-like. John was holding it in his still completely normal hands, obviously in total shock at what he was feeling.
"It's okay," I spoke as reassuringly as I could and struggled to my feet, tip-toeing slowly over to him.
John looked up at me. "What's happening to me, Dan?" he asked in a gentle, rumbling voice that amazingly wasn't slurred by his large fangs.
"I don't know, but it doesn't look bad," I told him. "You want to take a look?" John reluctantly turned back towards the bathroom mirror, and I squeezed his arm reassuringly in case he needed it, but since he was still in shock he took it quite calmly. I hoped he wasn't going to have a breakdown anytime soon.
I decided I'd better get a rational grip on the situation before anything like that happened at all. "Look, whatever's happening to us isn't painful and it isn't incapacitating so far," I told him. "But I don't know what might happen next. I think we'd better get a handle on things, and call some help or something just in case; are you feeling up to it?" John nodded, I helped him up, and guided him out of the bathroom and back to his bed where he sat down.
I tip-toed over to the telephone and picked it up, ready to dial 911. There was no dial tone. I clicked the receiver several times and waited nervously, releasing a sigh of relief when the dial tone finally appeared. The system must be really overloaded today, I thought, and dialled. I got a busy signal, and realized that I should have expected it. The sounds from the rest of the dorm had grown louder, with a steady murmur of moaning, cursing, excited speech, and the occasional scream blending into a background noise. Everyone in the building must be trying to call 911 at once.
I hung up the phone in defeat and turned around to tell John the news, and that he'd removed his nightshirt to reveal that the tawny fur covered his entire torso in addition to his feline head. He was busy tugging on tufts with his fingers, as if still not quite believing it was real. I tip-toed over to my bed to sit down and do some thinking myself, first of all on why I was tip-toeing everywhere. It was reflexive and felt perfectly natural, I realized; and as I examined my feet I saw that my heels had shrunk and my arches had lengthened. This was more than just skin deep; my actual bones, muscles and tendons were changed!
"Dan," John suddenly said, and I pulled my attention away from my feet. "Why'd you hang up? Who'd you call?" It was quite strange seeing a plainly animal face speaking fluent english like that. I tried to remind myself that John was in there; or at least, I hoped he still was.
"The lines are packed solid," I told him. "Everything's probably busy, I have no idea how many people are being affected by this but it's obviously lots."
"Turn on the TV," he said, and I smacked myself on the forehead. I reached over and turned it on, and John hissed alarmingly at the "pardon our technical difficulties" screen that appeared. I switched through several channels, but all were offline or running perfectly normal programming until I hit The News Channel. This time I hissed at what we saw; the news anchor, clearly nervous and distracted as he spoke, had a pair of short antlers growing from his head. He looked like he was in the process of turning into some sort of deer.
"...coast office is reporting total gridlock on the highways, and recommend that no one try to drive anywhere; the cars are bumper to bumper, there have been many reports of accidents and abandoned vehicles all over the place. Fortunately, there don't seem to be any major traffic disasters or loss of life, but please be advised that you can't get anywhere out there. It's best to stay at home, except in the direst emergencies. The hospitals are swamped, and should be used only for life-threatening injury."
"Unfortunately, we don't have much in the way of local information for most areas; we can only assume that conditions are similar across the country and indeed the world, for lack of opposing reports. For those just joining us, that means that every adult known at this time is undergoing some sort of transformation. Until we get specifics, we can only advise calm; the president has activated the emergency broadcast system and apparently will be delivering an announcement shortly. Stay where you are, stay calm, and stay tuned in for further announcements as developments become known."
John and I looked at each other in disbelief; this was happening everywhere. "I've gotta call Cindy," John said and jumped to his feet, rushing to the phone. He fiddled with it for a while, getting no better results than I had, and finally slammed it down with a vicious snarl that sent a shiver down my spine. "John! Take it easy!" I snapped. He snorted and started pacing like, well, like a cat. "I can't just sit here!" he said. "I'm turning into some sort of animal! Cindy may be too!"
"All right! We'll go, just stay calm!" I replied. "Let's get dressed, okay?"
John quickly pulled on a pair of pants and waited impatiently while I finished dressing; not only was I putting on more clothes than he had, but I had difficulty keeping my balance on my altered feet while I did so. I didn't bother with socks or shoes, since it was obvious they wouldn't fit, but I insisted on putting on everything else. I wasn't about to start running around half-naked, and I hoped that no one would notice my feet. I grabbed my walkman as an afterthought, and then we left the room and headed for the stairs.
The dormitory was obviously wide awake by now, and the hallway was a bustle of activity. John and I stared in unabashed amazement at the people hurrying to and fro in various states of dress and transformation; no two people were alike. Some of them stared back. Others were too busy staring at themselves, or lying curled in a corner whimpering, or (in one case) screaming her head off and scratching frantically at a hump on her back with her yellow-scaled hands. A man with raccoon-like fur on his face who obviously knew her was trying to calm her down, so John and I didn't interfere.
We were in some degree of shock ourselves, and I was especially worried about John; he was getting quite twitchy. I hurried after him as we left the building, headed across campus towards the apartment building where his girlfriend Cindy lived. I decided to go with him, both to make sure he got there safely and because I didn't really have anywhere else to go myself right now. All of my other friends and family lived off-campus, and there was no way I could reach them so I might as well not worry about it.
Once we were outside and out of the chaos, John slowed to a more reasonable walk. It was harder to tell that something very strange was happening out here, though there were more people running around than usual at this time of day, and on close examination many of them were either heavily dressed or partly transformed. I turned on my walkman and tuned it to a news channel just as a strange cramping sensation seized my legs and I sat down heavily with a gasp. John stopped and looked back at me, flicking his amazing ears back in surprise, and then emitted a gasp of his own as his fur started spreading from his torso to his arms.
"...getting worse again, I think, oh my god my hands! I don't know if this is happening to you but here in the studio... my god!" a frightened newscaster babbled in my ears as I clutched my legs, muscles bunching and relaxing under my grip. I saw the hair sprouting on the backs of my hands and felt it on the rest of my body, itching and tickling all the way up to my neck. It went on slightly longer than it had back in the dorm, I thought.
"Okay. Okay. I think it's stopping," the newscaster said as the itching and twitching left my body again. "My hands... Excuse me for a moment, listeners, I'm a little overwhelmed by this. Just a moment while I catch my breath..." He couldn't have echoed my thoughts better as I sat on the ground panting, trying to gather my thoughts as I stared at the furry paws my hands were becoming. I looked up at John, who had remained standing motionless throughout this surge of change. At first glance the only change was the coverage of his arms with the same yellow-brown fur that had been on his torso; no skin was left bare now, and I noted that his feet also had fur. It was probably all over his body. But his musculature and bearing had also changed subtly; he looked lean and sinewy. He now looked like he was wearing the most perfect cat costume I'd ever seen.
Wordlessly, he offered his hand and helped me back to my toes. I was promptly aware of the further changes in my legs; my jeans were uncomfortably tight on my thickened thighs, and though my feet had lengthened the rest of the legs had shortened until my heels were now well above my cuffs. Assuming that John had remained the same height, I could see that I had lost about six inches. I wobbled unsteadily on my toes, unused to the geometry.
"Urr you okay?" John asked. "I'm... a little shaken up," I replied hoarsely, marvelling at the soft rumble of his catlike voice. All over campus people were again taking stock after the newest change, and I could hear more screaming in the distance again. Fortunately I was still in too much shock to do that sort of thing, and so with me leaning on John's furry shoulder to help keep my balance we resumed our course towards Cindy's apartment. We made it with no further incident, passing all manner of people on the way; everyone seemed to be changing into different animals. The radio reported that some people at the studio seemed to have stopped changing already, and that the national guard was being mobilized to keep order. So far there didn't seem to be much large-scale panic; just small-scale panic. Everyone must be as stunned as I am, I reasoned.
The apartment building was less chaotic than the dorm building had been when we left it, as people seemed more inclined to stay in their rooms here. I didn't bother thinking about it as we rode the elevator; I was just glad we didn't have to take the stairs, my jeans weren't designed for the new locations of my knees and ankles and were starting to become extremely uncomfortable. John seemed uncomfortable too, despite his completely normal shape; he continually fidgeted with his pants as if he desperately wanted to get out of them. He seemed reluctant to talk, however, and so I didn't ask.
We reached Cindy's apartment and John hesitated before knocked on the door; I could muffled sobbing and speech inside, and obviously so could John.
He knocked and called out "Cindy? Cindy, are you okay?" a moment later the speech stopped and someone opened the door. She was dressed only in a loose gown which she clutched around herself protectively. She was half camel; her face was quite distinctive, as was her faint but noticeable smell. Her skin was like light brown leather covered with short, fleecy hair and her hands had only two thick fingers each. I suddenly realized that I had no idea if this was Cindy or her roommate Janice. John's sudden silence suggested a similar realization.
"What do you want, who are... oh, Dan?" she asked, catching sight of my relatively unchanged face.
"Cindy?" John asked hesitantly.
The camel-woman shook her head as she examined John's face searchingly. "It's John," I told her, and a look of surprise crossed her features.
"Oh! Well, you'd better come in! Cindy's taking this hard, I'm having trouble calming her." She stepped aside, and John and I came in. I sat down on the sofa, glad to be off my feet, while Janice took John over to the door from behind which the muffled sobbing had originated. "Cindy? Good news, John's here," she called to her.
"Oh no, don't let him see me!" came the frightened reply. Cindy's voice was much deeper than usual, almost booming, but still identifiably feminine.
"What's she turning into?" John asked Janice quietly.
"Would you believe a buffalo?" Janice replied. John's ears flicked back and his mouth fell open in shock. But after a moment he turned to the door and called out "It's all right, Cindy, I've changed too! I'm coming in, and I love you no matter what!" He hesitated, ears perking as he tried to understand Cindy's muffled reply, then drooping as he opened the door and slunk inside. After another moment I could hear his soft voice gently trying to coax a response from Cindy. Janice sighed and walked over to sit on the couch beside me, rubbing her face tiredly. "I hope she calms down a bit. This is too early in the morning for me to deal with." Then she grinned, an odd sight on her camel-like face. "John looks amazing, though! Mrrrow!"
I emitted a short bark of laughter. "He couldn't think of anything other than her," I said. "I guess tagging along helped keep my mind off of what's going on."
Janice nodded in agreement. "And Cindy's little breakdown's helped me keep my mind off it too. I can't believe I'm turning into a fucking camel, for god's sake. What will my parents think? It was bad enough when I got my navel pierced."
"I think they'll be glad you're okay," I said mildly. "It sounds like a bit of chaos out there; total transportational and informational gridlock."
"So this is happening citywide?" I couldn't tell if Janice was upset or relieved at the information; she probably didn't know herself. I know I wouldn't want to think I was the only one transforming, but on the other hand it's not exactly a good thing for everyone else to be changing too...
"It's worldwide. Haven't you checked the news?" I tapped the walkman; the radio newsman had been blathering somewhat randomly, understandable considering the condition he was in, but had at least tried to give what useful information he could between pointless descriptions of himself and his colleagues. For instance, children under the age of approximately thirteen or fourteen were apparently not affected by whatever was happening; humanity might not end up extinct after all.
Janice shook her head and reached for the TV remote on the coffee table. "Didn't think of that. Worldwide, huh? Wow." She fumbled with the remote for a moment, having difficulty hitting the tiny buttons with her thick camel fingers. Then the TV came on and she laboriously switched through the channels until reaching The News Channel. The same news anchor was still on, only his transformation was more advanced; his head looked more like that of a real elk, rather than just some unshaven guy wearing a small set of antlers. He was also more calm and comfortable; I was amazed by how quickly he seemed to be adapting. There was even a simple icon in the upper right corner of the screen reading "Unexplained Transformations," which some highly dedicated graphic designer must have drawn up since this all began.
"...has reported that China hasn't made any statements, though they seem to be focused on trying to keep internal order; the Russian military has also assured the state department that they don't consider this an external threat, though they are on heightened alert. The president will be making another statement within an hour. Also just in, the FA... A... excuse me," he shifted uncomfortably in his chair, "I think... it's started again, if we could cut to the tape now..."
I quickly muted the TV, and Janice glanced questioningly at me. "Cindy! John! I think it's going to start again!" I called out. "It seems to happen to everyone at once," I said more quietly to Janice. "It comes in su-u-rges..." I grunted and cut off my explanation as I felt my body beginning to change again.
Janice's eyes widened. "Is there anything I can do?" she asked, concerned.
I shook my head. "Just stay calm, I guess," I growled. Strangely, she herself didn't seem to be changing. Perhaps she was finished already. Cindy probably wasn't; I heard her moaning, and heard John trying to comfort her. I wondered what she looked like.
Then I stopped paying attention to that and focused on myself. It was the worst change yet; I felt my rib cage expanding and my guts flowing like a thick milkshake. The fur crept up my neck and over the rest of my body, and my skull felt like it was in a vise; I could see my nose and jaw stretching outward in front of me. Then, suddenly, my shoulders and hips squeezed and I almost fell off the couch. Janice's grip was the only thing that held me up. I felt an intense pressure in my backside, and I whimpered. There was the sound of a few seams popping, and then it was over. I remained doubled up, panting and exhausted by the change.
"Are you okay?" Janice asked, sounding very concerned.
"Yeah... just... give me a moment." My voice was low and growling, and I had some trouble pronouncing the words; I had a muzzle now, and I wasn't used to it yet. "Okay." I tried straightening up, and yelped in pain; I had a tail now too, and it was sharply kinked inside my pants. I tried to pull it out but my pants were too tight to even get my hands in. I finally managed to undo my zipper far enough to free it, and I sighed deeply in relief. Perhaps I shouldn't have put on so much clothing this morning, or at least put on something looser. Oh well, spilt milk.
With Janice's help, I struggled to my feet. My balance was even worse now; my legs had become completely nonhuman under my strangely baggy and bulging jeans, and it took me a while to figure out how to stand on my own. They were obviously shorter, too. "Okay, then. What am I?" I asked Janice, already having a pretty good idea.
"Wolf, definitely wolf," she replied. "You've changed so much...!" That second comment made me very nervous; just how human was I still? I flexed my fingers experimentally; they were a little short and stiff, but quite functional. I carefully felt the shape of my head and found it to be totally wolf-like except for my braincase; my muzzle was constantly in my vision, making me feel a little bit like I was wearing a mask. But this was definitely no mask. I suddenly wished I'd taken a photo of myself before the change had finished; it might have been my last opportunity.
"Is there a mirror in the bathroom?" I asked, and Janice nodded. I let go of her, took several careful tip-toeing steps, and then stumbled and fell to my hands and knees. Then I suddenly realized that I wasn't down on my hands and knees, I was on my fingers and toes; I was actually standing on all fours like an animal! I looked up at Janice in amazement, my altered neck allowing the head angle comfortably. "Holy shit, I'm quadrupedal!"
"Oh, no! Are you sure?"
I waved off the helping hand that Janice offered I struggled back up on my (hind!) legs to stand bipedally again. It was quickly becoming easier with practice, and I took a few relatively steadied steps. "No. No, I can walk..."
I heard heavy footsteps behind me, and we turned to see Cindy and John coming out of Cindy's bedroom together. Cindy was an amazing sight to behold; a massive, muscular humanoid bison at least 7 feet tall, with horns and hooves, and wrapped in a white sheet like a toga. John hadn't noticeably changed at all, except that now he was completely naked. I averted my eyes slightly in embarrassment, wondering why he'd taken his pants off; he didn't have a tail, he was basically just a lean furry human with the head of a panther. I sniffed the air, picking up their distinctive scents. They were amazingly strong, but perhaps that was just me...
"So you came out," Janice commented. "Yeah," Cindy mumbled as she shied away from our stares. I broke my impolite gaze and muttered an apology, walking back to the couch and hopping up onto it. I perched uncomfortably for a moment, trying to sit properly on the edge, but I realized that my legs and especially my thighs were too short. So I pulled my feet up on the couch and sat on my haunches instead, dog-style, and found it far more comfortable even with my jeans still all crumpled and tangled.
Then the other two walked over, and I hastily relinquished my spot on the couch to Cindy as she sat down next to me with the sound of creaking wood and springs. She apologised, but I grumbled only a little since she seemed to be having a hard enough time as it was. John sat next to her, holding her massive hand in his; Janice sat in the armchair. I was left with nowhere to sit, but I didn't really need a chair so I sat on the floor.
No one spoke for several long, uncomfortable seconds. Then I took the initiative and turned off the mute on the television; I wanted to find out as much as possible about what was going on outside before trying to plan what to do next. The elk anchorman was back on, and we listened to him with rapt attention.
As we sat there watching an elk reading the news, I think I finally started to lose it a little bit. Until now I hadn't had time to stop and think, but now that Cindy was quiet and had John to look after her, and Dan was sitting on the floor paying rapt attention to the TV, there was only one person left for me to worry about. Me.
I supposed I was fairly well off, relatively speaking. The newscaster spoke of rumors of people turning completely into animals, and Dan was a living example of how bad the transformation could get; he basically looked like a wolf who could walk on his hind legs. I, on the other hand, was more like John; still pretty much human, just wearing a furry suit. And considering that I hadn't changed any further during the last surge, it looked like this may be it.
I spent a long time thinking about that, ignoring the news for the moment. It was sinking in. I might very well be stuck like this; we all might be. What would my parents think? Of course, if the news was accurate, they had probably changed too; but that was even harder to imagine than what had happened to me. I slowly ran my weirdly altered hand over the short coarse hair that sparsely covered my hide, trying to get a grip on what had happened and keep my cool.
"Excuse me," I said to the others, abruptly standing up and walking to my room. "I'll be right back." I closed the door behind me, not worrying about what they may be thinking. I had my own concerns right now. Slipping out of my robe, I stood naked in front of the full-length mirror and spent a long time examining myself thoughtfully.
It really wasn't that bad, I decided at last. I had always thought of camels as ugly creatures, and had heard that they smelled bad too; but after long and careful reflection (pun intended) I was pleased to admit that despite that I looked pretty good myself. My skin was sandy yellow, like the desert, and covered in a thin layer of fleecy hair that thickened almost to wool on my back and a few other places. My face and head, while definitely not human, were not a true camel's snout; it was much less elongated than that, with a proper forehead. I decided that I was still attractive, in an exotic way. The only thing I really missed was my long hair, and my bust was also somewhat reduced. And at least I didn't seem to have a hump, as that would have totally ruined my lines. Amazing, I thought, both over my appearance and over how easily I was accepting it. Even my camel-like scent wasn't as bad as I'd expected, though my nose may well be biased now. I picked the robe back up, then decided to get properly dressed and put it away.
When I walked back into the room Dan glanced at me, questioning concern evident in his lupine face; "It's all right," I told him, "I feel fine." I had chosen to dress lightly, in shorts and a T-shirt; there seemed to be no point in trying to hide anything, and it was a warm day out. Dan, on the other hand, was still wearing his shirt and jeans despite being the wrong proportions for them to be comfortable; I wondered if there was any clothing I could offer him, then decided not to bring it up. I changed subjects. "Cindy, are you all right?"
Cindy looked up, still dazed but at least no longer panicking. "I... I... think so," she said in her newly deep voice, and then clapped a massive hand to her square muzzle in embarrassment. John rubbed her leg reassuringly. "It's okay," he purred, "don't be ashamed." I wondered briefly if I should be offering him any clothing, and then decided I didn't want to touch that subject either. Besides, what woman in her right mind would suggest that a sexy feline like John should wear anything? I grinned and went to sit down again, chastising myself for thinking such thoughts under these circumstances. I was sure John must have a perfectly good reason for going nude like that.
"So," I began. "Here we are. Any ideas on what we should do next?"
"The streets are in chaos," Dan immediately growled, "it's not exactly a riot, but the crashed and abandoned cars are impassable. Besides, I don't think I could reach the pedals, and Cindy's probably too heavy for my car."
"I suppose we should stay put, then," I mused.
John shook his head. "We can't stay forever; Cindy's starving, and I'm a bit hungry too. How much food is there?"
I frowned. "I hadn't thought of that. There's enough for a couple of days at least... or maybe not. Cindy, just how hungry are you?" Considering her new size, I feared that she might be able to eat the whole pantry in one sitting.
"Hungry enough to eat the whole pantry in one sitting," she replied quietly, and I sagged slightly. "Oh, well. I guess we'll have to go out for more food later, then." My mind was starting to race; I'd never seriously considered the possibility of being in a collapse-of-civilization situation, and I certainly hadn't considered the possibility of being a camel hybrid in a collapse-of-civilization situation with a wolf hybrid, a cat hybrid, and a buffalo hybrid in my apartment with me. But I was coming up with a few ideas. "Okay, Cindy; if you're really that hungry you should probably go and eat something. I hope the water's still running, and if it is we should fill as many containers as we can in case it stops. Could you do that while you're in the kitchen?" Cindy nodded and struggled to her hoofed feet; the couch made a few pathetic "boing" noises as it tried to recover from her weight and failed. John also got up and followed her, glancing back at me with what I would almost interpret as suspicion. Puzzling.
I turned to Dan, who was still sitting on the floor and looking at me expectantly. "What now, boss?" he asked. for a moment I though he might be being sarcastic, but I realized that he meant it and that I had somehow taken charge of the situation. I could have hit myself; I kept doing that. Why couldn't I have been a born follower? Oh well, I sighed silently.
"You've been out there; how bad was it?"
Dan shook his head. "Not bad. But that was earlier; not many people were out yet. The dorm was going nuts. I can hear this building starting to go nuts too, but it's not nearly so bad; I think it's already calming down." I paused and realized that I could make out the faint sounds of muffled voices too; Dan was right, there seemed to be a certain degree of hysteria in the building. I couldn't hear all that much even with my enlarged ears, but considering that Dan was almost a wolf I guessed he must have pretty good senses.
"I hope my family is all right," I muttered under my breath.
"The phones in the dorm were out," Dan commented, "too many people were using them. Yours are too?"
I nodded. "And I couldn't get on the net either, even with my computing science account. Probably due to a combination of too many connections, and the helpstaff turning into walking artichokes or whatever." I chewed my thick lower lip thoughtfully. "The internet backbones should still be running, though; those things were designed to survive another plague war. If I could just connect across campus to the mail server... Cindy! John! I have an idea!"
Cindy and John came out of the kitchen; Cindy was carrying a box of Cheerios from which she continued to scoop handfuls, and John was licking his lips clean in a rather sensual way. I hoped they would remember to fill those water containers before they cleaned out everything and went to sleep it off. "What is it?" John asked.
"I think I can get email out from the Computing and Network Services building, if I get access to the direct terminals there. I don't know whether anyone else can get on their accounts to read them, but it's worth a try; I can send messages to everyone's families that we're okay." Even with a buffalo's face, I saw Cindy's expression light up immediately; Dan started and stared at his tail in surprise as it wagged briefly. John only gave a cool "sounds good" and a nod of agreement; I seemed to recall Cindy mentioning that he didn't get along with his parents very well.
I got out a pad of paper. "Okay," I said as I gripped a pen in my new fingers, "all I need is their addresses, and any brief message you want me to tell them." They each gave several addresses, but there wasn't much to put in the message; basically they wanted to tell people that they were safe and what species they had become. Cindy didn't even want to say the latter, just that she was safe. I supposed that short messages were for the best; my unfamiliar hands made my penmanship terrible. I folded the paper and put it in my pocket, then started searching for my shoes.
"Waitaminute, you're going out there?" Dan asked, just catching on. "I'd better come with you."
I shook my head. "It's not that far. I'll be fine," I assured him as I unlaced a sneaker and tried to stuff my misshapen two-toed foot into it. "As many of us as possible should stay in the apartment for now; it's our base camp. I'll be back as soon as possible. Crap!" I tossed the shoe aside; my feet had become shorter and wider, and wouldn't fit. "I guess I'll have to go barefoot" I sighed, rubbing the soles of my feet. My skin was very thick and leathery down there, so I guessed it wouldn't be too bad.
Dan still wanted to protest my going out there alone, but John agreed with me and so Dan gave up the argument. I wondered if maybe I should have taken his advice anyways, but I'm a pretty stubborn person and I felt I could handle it. Besides, I wanted to get away from the state of authority I had somehow accidentally assumed. The walk would help me think without pressure.
The social climate in the halls of the apartment building was rather strange, I must say; some people were heavily clothed and hurried furtively, trying to avoid eye contact and keep unnoticed, while others (myself among them) acquired a somewhat dazed expression and stared openly at everyone as they wandered around. I could understand the urge to hide, since the intense scrutiny I received by exposing my altered body did make me a little embarrassed, but I knew it was irrational and so ignored it as best I could. Besides, since I was curiously examining everyone else, I supposed that it was only fair to let them examine me back. Most people seemed to be staying inside their rooms, though, so I actually met very few people on the way to the lobby.
It was slightly different outside, with the main road just a block away jammed with bumper-to-bumper traffic and stranded motorists; there wasn't as much yelling and horn-blowing as I would have expected, but there were lots of people milling around. Fortunately I wasn't headed in that direction, and I padded off down the sidewalk towards the campus computing center. The other pedestrians were all avoiding me and each other, except for the dazed folk, so there was little to worry about; The weather was pleasant, and the air smelled especially good today.
The computing center seemed eerily abandoned when I first entered the building, the help desk deserted and the side offices either empty or tightly locked. I heard tense conversation in the room behind the front office, though, where the root terminals were located; I walked past the desk and peeked through the half-open door. There were three people sitting at terminals clustered at the side of the room, each working very hard on something and occasionally speaking to each other in low but urgent tones. There was a lizard, a blackbird, and a grey-furred rodent that was almost human.
I knocked lightly on the door to announce my presence as I stepped inside and they all looked up at me, stopping their work. "Uh, hello?" I asked uncertainly.
"Come in, come in," the grey rodent spoke excitedly and gestured to an unoccupied terminal nearby.
"Who're you?" the lizard asked.
"I'm Janice Farrow," I replied as I walked in. Then I added "computing science major," since this room was one of the inner sanctums of the campus computer network; I figured I should reassure them I wasn't a ham-fisted amateur.
"You're a student? What year? We're a little understaffed! We could use some help if you don't mind, I'm trying to get the ethernet back up..." the grey rodent spoke rapidly.
"I, uh, just came to get at the mail server..." I started to object. The lizard wobbled his head in apparent amusement and cut me off.
"No problem, don't mind Leon, he's just a little stressed right now. Everyone's run off and deserted their posts, just when they're needed most. I'm Kelly Brown and that's Jonas Hansen, by the way."
"Mr. Hansen?" I stared at the bird in amazement. "You teach my computing 403 class!"
"Oh!" he chirped in surprise and glanced down at the pile of clothes next to his chair with momentary embarrassment; he was dressed in nothing but his feathers, understandable considering the extreme nature of his change. His glossy black tail feathers almost reached the floor, he had a large pair of wings in addition to his shrunken arms, and his legs were so altered that he had to perch on his chair rather than sit on it. I almost giggled at incongruity of big Mr. Hansen becoming the bird I saw before me, but kept a straight face as I suspected it would have been terribly rude.
Introductions aside, I sat at a nearby unoccupied terminal and got down to trying to log on.
I finally logged out a half hour later, feeling both successful and at the same time terribly frustrated. The network was in terrible shape right now, but that hadn't been my worst problem; my fingers were too damn thick, and too damn few. I couldn't possibly touch-type like I used to, and I had been reduced to pecking out commands like an amateur to avoid hitting several keys at once. I had even tried typing with a pencil eraser, but that had actually slowed me down even more. I sighed and flexed my hands, realizing that I may never be able to type at my old level again. Damn.
On the other hand, I had gotten all the necessary mail through; I had no idea when or whether they'd be read, but at least it was better than waiting for the regular phones to come back online. Right now the only mediums of communication that were passable were good old-fashioned broadcast and the Internet, and not everyone could access the latter due to dial-in server overloads. But not all servers had crashed as badly as ours had and there was actually a fair amount of traffic, though as always in such a medium the information passed was of questionable quality. For example, I briefly managed to join an IRC channel with someone named David who claimed to be a velociraptor. Should I believe him or not? Impossible to tell, all things considered. And there were already people claiming to have cures, too; I didn't believe that one for a moment.
Sighing again, I reached over and turned off my terminal. "Well guys," I said, "I'm done here. I've got to get back to the apartment. Things to do, people to take care of." I'd come up with a lot more ideas about what we would need to do, and was ready to handle things again.
"Thanks for the help, and good luck!" Mr. Hansen trilled sweetly, then ducked his head in sudden mortification. I hoped he didn't notice my quick grin; he was terribly embarrassed by his new high, musical voice. It made sense, I suppose; I seem to recall that for many birds it's the male that does the singing. Kelly's "expression" was rather more blatant, on the other hand, curling his tail and tilting his head in what I interpreted as a smile or laugh. His lizardlike face wasn't exactly flexible, so his expressions had translated somehow into body language.
I could have embarrassed him right back, but I hadn't the nerve or the desire to; Kelly's name and his remaining torn clothing were sufficiently androgynous that I wasn't exactly sure of his gender, the only way to find out would be to admit it and ask. I strongly suspected he was male, but...
"Yeah, good luck, Janice," he (she?) echoed. "When Leon gets back from the tape drives I'll give him your regards." I nodded and walked out of the room with a final wave. Actually, I was somewhat glad Leon wasn't there; he'd probably get worked up and go hyper saying goodbye. He did that alot, perhaps it was due to his rodent influences.
As I left the building and started walking back towards the apartment building I thought about the three people back there who, despite having full access for themselves, were working to bring the local hosts back online for everyone else. None of them seemed heroically motivated; Mr. Hansen was doing it to keep his mind off of his own problems, Leon was such a workaholic that he'd probably spontaneously combust if he tried just sitting around, and Kelly simply seemed to not care too much about what had happened to him and was trying to go on as normal. Yet they were just as helpful as the emergency personnel that stayed at their posts out of a sense of duty.
I sighed, and as I walked I switched my attention back to my own problems. It looked like there wasn't going to be a riot in the local neighbourhood, I decided; there were more people starting to mill around outside, but they were generally very subdued. Those who I encountered that were suffering from major breakdowns were either whimpering in corners or were surrounded by small groups of bystanders trying to help or simply to ogle. I saw one group of people carrying a sheet being used as a crude stretcher for someone, and did a double-take as whoever was being carried shifted and a fishlike tail flopped into view. Obviously, whoever it was now had difficulty moving on dry land. Once again I realized that I was lucky for having changed so little.
But I still had lots to worry about, now that my little internet break was over. Checking my watch, I broke into a jog; I had stayed rather longer than I should have, and the others might be worried by now. Arriving back at the apartment, I knocked on the door. "It's Janice, I'm back."
I heard someone large stomping heavily inside. "Janice!" Cindy's deep voice boomed excitedly, and she fumbled with the lock for a second before flinging the door open. "I'm so glad you're back!" And with that she swallowed me in a humungous hug.
"Gack! Cind... Mmph!" I struggled for a moment to get out of her crushing grip, then calmed down and waited for Cindy to do the same. After a moment she did, and released me sheepishly.
"Sorry. I was worried you wouldn't come back, and I'd be alone."
"S'okay," I said as I caught my breath and we went inside. "I promised I wasn't going far, just to the CNS building and back. Where's John and Dan?" I glanced around the living room, realizing that I didn't see them.
Cindy was suddenly on the brink of tears again, an odd expression for a huge buffalo like her to have. "John... John ran off. Dan went to find him, but he told me to stay here and wait for you. I was so worried I wouldn't see any of you again, I didn't know what to do."
"Swell." I sighed and rubbed the bridge of my snout. "Just great."
After Janice left I spent a while longer sitting on the floor in front of the TV, soaking up as much information as I could from the disorganized news broadcasts that were popping up all over. The various channels were slowly achieving their final states; either recovering enough to put on news broadcasts, or crashing into static as the staff abandoned their posts. It was amazing how few were crashing; there must be a lot of dedicated journalists out there.
However, there was very little real information available as yet, and so after a while they began to get repetitive. I turned the volume down to background levels and turned my attention back to myself, to this new body I now had. It would take some getting used to.
First of all, I didn't know whether I should practice walking bipedally or quadrupedally first; both felt equally comfortable to me now. But I decided that I preferred walking upright, both for practical and psychological reasons; no matter what I may look like, I wasn't an animal and I wasn't about to start acting like one if I could help it. I rose onto my hind legs, one hand gripping the arm of the chair to steady myself and the other on my belt holding up my pants.
To my consternation I discovered that I was at least a foot shorter than I had been, something I hadn't really noticed until now. It was mostly lost from the legs, I realized as I tried a few experimental steps. Not only could I clearly feel the difference in my proportions, but my pants were now about a foot too long and kept tripping me up. I briefly considered getting rid of them like John had, my fur and sheath would provide at least a little modesty. But then I came up with a much better idea and shuffled into the bathroom. Stretching to reach the medicine cabinet, I found a pair of scissors and proceeded to laboriously hack off the ends of my pant legs to make myself a pair of cut-offs.
Holding the scissors properly was difficult with my stubby fingers, but by the time I was finished I'd gotten the hang of it and cut a crude tail hole as well. Threading my tail through, I was at last able to pull my pants up properly and fasten my fly again. I discovered that my pants were a bit shorter than I had intended since I had cut them before pulling them back up, but it looked okay. I did a more minor job of impromptu tailoring on my shirt, and then put the scissors away.
I had been carefully avoiding looking in the mirror until now but I didn't want to put it off any longer, if only because I was tired of worrying about what I might think of what I saw. So I decided to get it over with, took a deep breath, and turned to face myself. After a while I stopped simply staring and started actively posing, and before I knew it I was actually proud of my appearance. I thought I looked pretty neat.
But then I remembered that I wasn't wearing a costume, that this was probably going to be me for the rest of my life, and my mood faded back to dark uncertainty again. I didn't know the first thing about wolves, and I wasn't even the real thing. Would I have to trim my claws? Would I shed? Would I need vaccinations? Some sort of licence? What would I do with the rest of my life? That last question had been hard enough to answer when the world had been a relatively well-known place, but now everything was different. I sat unsteadily on the edge of the bathtub as I tried to think about all that, and then after a moment I overbalanced and fell into the tub. "Damn, so much for finding the deep answers," I muttered unhappily. But at least I hadn't landed on my tail, and my thick fur had acted as padding; The only thing bruised was my ego. I crawled out of the tub, claws scratching loudly on the enamel, and pushed myself back up onto my hind legs.
My concentration and preoccupation broken, I finally registered the sound of John and Cindy arguing quietly in the next room. Cindy's deep voice betrayed a lot of concern, while John's was sharp and snarling. Worried, I set aside my own problems for a moment and left the bathroom.
"...just a little, then. Come on, John, this isn't like you!" Cindy pleaded.
"No! I... I don't feel right. I feel..." John seemed to be struggling to find the right words.
"John? Cindy? What's up?" I asked.
"John won't put his pants back on, he says they don't feel right."
"If you want I could try cutting them up a bit like mine," I suggested to John while eyeing him dubiously. I still couldn't see what his problem was, his body was still pretty much completely human-shaped. Perhaps it was the fur?
John's reply was a quite-unexpected scream of frustration. "You just don't understand!" He yelled, and stalked off toward the door. Cindy moved to block him.
"Wait, please, John! Don't go!"
John snarled, ears flattened and shoulders hunched threateningly. Cindy cringed, her timid posture an odd combination with her 8-foot-tall hulking frame. But she held her ground. "John," I tried to speak reasonably, "Let's..."
With another snarl John spun and ran to the window. He punched the screen out of the frame, and climbed up onto the sill. "Oh shit," I cursed under my breath and tried to run after him. I wasn't nearly fast enough with my shortened legs.
John swung down out of sight. "John!" Cindy bellowed fearfully. I reached the window and looked down, also afraid of what I might see. What I did see took several seconds to properly register, and then my jaw dropped in surprise.
John was crawling rapidly down the side of the building, somehow clinging magically to the wall like Spider-Man. "Leave me alone!" I faintly heard him snarl as he went. Then he jumped the last two stories to the ground and sprinted away, past several clusters of very surprised bystanders, quickly moving out of sight. Cindy stomped to my side just in time to catch a glimpse of his back as he went around the corner.
After a moment, Cindy spoke. "I wonder how he did that?" She sounded a little awed and detached.
I shook my head, feeling equally detached. "Haven't got a clue. Another effect of the change, I would guess; let's let the biologists work it all out. What was that about, anyways?"
"He was behaving strangely, I guess it must be shock or something. I asked him why he wasn't wearing anything, but the conversation kind of exploded and I don't know why. I'm really worried, Dan. Has he gone crazy?"
I tried to pat her reassuringly on the arm, but since she was almost twice my height it seemed a somewhat feeble gesture. "I don't know, it could just be stress or something. We can handle this, just keep calm and I'm sure we'll be all right. We've just got to keep our heads together." I was speaking as much to myself as to Cindy, but as I said it I found that I didn't really need it. After all that had happened already, my ability to feel panic was kind of burned out.
"What about John?" Cindy asked plaintively. "Dan, someone's got to go after him." She hesitated, reluctant to ask it of me but clearly wanting to. I saved her the dilemma.
"I'll go. He's my friend too. Besides, someone's got to hold the fort and wait for Janice, and it's your apartment. But will you be all right?"
Cindy nodded and pulled her bedsheet-toga tighter around herself. "I'll be okay. Just find John, make sure he's all right." I knew she'd be fine physically, if some maniac were to break in she could probably fight him off far better than I could myself. But she was emotionally vulnerable, and I still worried.
But I was also worried about John, so without further ado I went out into the hall. I passed a lot more people in the hallway than had been out when I had first come here, but I couldn't stop to chat; I was hurrying as fast as two legs would carry me and it wasn't terribly fast. By the time I got outside it had been several minutes since John had left.
"Did you see a man climb down that building and run past here, he looked like some sort of cat and he wasn't wearing anything?" I asked several bystanders, but I didn't get much help from that; I was too late arriving on the scene, and it was a silly question anyways. Then I had an epiphany and slapped myself on my forehead (and nearly missed due to its reduced profile). I was supposedly a wolf, after all; I should be really good at tracking.
In theory. But as I tried to put my idea into practice, I realized that I didn't really know what I was doing. There were lots of smells; dry grass, tar just starting to warm in the morning sun, a dozen different musks from the animals... from the people around me. I thought I could smell something I had smelled in the apartment before, which logically must be John's scent, but what was that supposed to tell me? I already knew that he'd been here, what I wanted to know was where he'd gone.
I felt pretty stupid standing there sniffing the air like that. Fortunately the few people nearby were all busy with their own problems, and so at least they didn't stare. I sheepishly stopped my futile sniffing and walked off in the direction of the Pavilion, the general direction that I guessed John had headed. Perhaps some other clues would present themselves along the way.
Rounding the corner and trotting down to the sidewalk, I crossed a deserted road. Glancing down the block I realized that although the main roads must be clogged with wrecks and abandoned vehicles the smaller side roads like this were clear; my car might be able to get around, after all. I would have to make sure to mention that to Janice when I got back, since we'd need transportation to get food... I put it out of my mind for the moment. First I had to find John somehow, and that wouldn't be easy; I had no idea which way to head now. Even the scent that I surmised was his was gone. "Aha!" I smacked myself on the forehead again, this time remembering to take its slope into account in my aim. If the scent wasn't here, then John hadn't come this way. Tracking by scent must be a process of elimination, I could tell which way he'd gone by avoiding places where I couldn't smell him. I should have thought of that in the first place. Nature documentaries hadn't ever mentioned details like this, it had always sounded so automatic...
Backtracking to where I had started, I began trying different possible directions to see if the scent continued. After a few short walks out and back, I came up with the idea of simply circling around John's last known position until I hit his trail. Another trick I'd never heard in the documentaries before. I quickly discovered that John had headed in the direction of our dorm building, which was yet another thing which should have occurred to me from the start. I was getting pretty embarrassed by my foolishness by now, and I had been behaving strangely enough to finally draw some stares; blushing under my fur (or at least imagining that I was), I hurried after him.
Even knowing where John was most likely headed, I temporarily lost the scent a few times. I occasionally had to drop to all fours to get my nose close enough to the ground to detect it. I always got back up after reacquiring the trail, however; though I was relying on an animal sense to track John (and finding it pretty neat, too), I wasn't about to go running around behaving like one in public.
Rounding the last corner I stumbled unsteadily to a stop, momentarily taken aback by the scene. Obviously, the panic had been far worse at the dorm than in Cindy's apartment building; the place looked a bit like a small riot had hit. People were milling about the doors, a confusing mixture of shapes and clothing. The smell of fear was evident even at this range, and I heard a cacophony of voices in the background as varied as the people. Nobody seemed to have any idea what to do. Trying to keep from being distracted by the sights and sounds (and smells! Oh man, the amazingly complex smells!), I followed John's trail to the base of the building's wall, right under our room's window. The trail stopped there; he must have gone straight up the wall, just as he had gone straight down the wall over at Cindy's. I really wondered how he could do that, and resolved to ask him after everything was sorted out.
Since I needed stairs to reach our floor, I had to push through the crowd outside the front door. Though I was below their average height, the people tended to get out of my way; I suddenly realized that much of the crowd was composed of people partly transformed into a variety of hoofed animals. They pressed closely against each other, but seemed to unconsciously give me a wider berth. Herd animals? I wondered incredulously. There was an impressive-looking cheetah woman who seemed to be causing a reaction similar to the one I was, perhaps there really was something instinctive behind it. I pulled my lips back in a slight grin at the thought, exposing my carnivore's fangs. Then I immediately lost the grin; what if I'm affected, too? I suddenly realized that the thick smell of the crowd was making my mouth water a little, and I became very afraid. Was I losing my mind? I clamped down on that line of thought.
With shaken confidence but stronger focus I made my way inside. The confusion was even worse in here, within the confining walls of the narrow hallways; I was caught in a press of fur and feathers as people tried to squeeze past me. Some wanted in, some wanted out, and some didn't seem to know what they wanted; whatever the case, there wasn't enough room for everyone to pass at once. My predatory appearance didn't seem to help me get through as easily in here, and my reduced height most certainly didn't. I was somewhat overwhelmed by the sensory overload, and I several times I caught myself growling and on the verge of hitting people. But I kept my emotions tightly under control, got through the crush at the door without starting any fights, and once I struggled up the stairs to my floor the congestion thinned considerably. I breathed a deep sigh of relief, then another, and found myself panting.
I couldn't stop, but I didn't try very hard. The cool air felt wonderful on my tongue and since I wasn't sweating I guessed that I needed to do it to lose heat now. I also wanted desperately to sit down for a while; my poor toes were starting to get sore from being walked on too much, and my back hurt. But all these concerns quickly faded as I unlocked the door to my room and stepped inside.
John was in here, all right; I could smell it, I could feel it somehow. Quietly closing the door behind me, I carefully looked over the room. It looked far more normal than it should, in my opinion, as if we'd just stepped out a few hours ago to go to classes instead of turning into animals. Then I noticed that the bathroom door was open just a crack, when I was pretty sure it had been left open all the way when I'd left. "John?" I called out as softly as my new voice allowed. "John, are you in there?"
There was a short pause, then movement within. John's feline form appeared at the door... and I took a step back, suddenly nervous. John had a deadly serious look, his movements predatory and animalistic. He growled dangerously, wordlessly. "Oh shit," I muttered. "Uh, John. John, can you hear me? It's Dan." John's expression didn't register any recognition at the sound of my voice, but he hesitated slightly; I kept talking, desperately hoping I could get through to him. If I couldn't... I suddenly realized that John's claws and fangs weren't decorative. I could be in big trouble here.
The wolf that had followed me here from the other apartment was afraid, I could tell, but he didn't flee; I couldn't understand why not. Although he was invading my home I didn't particularly want to fight him, I just wanted to be left alone. I wanted someplace safe and quiet where I could try to think, to try to resolve the terrible conflict that was still going on inside me. I didn't want all these reminders of the incomprehensible chaos that was going on outside, at least not until after I had sorted out what had happened to me.
The wolf made a low noise, apparently wanting something. I couldn't figure out what, though, the noise sounded like meaningless gibberish. I snarled again, as menacingly as I could, and drew back a hand as if to strike him; if that didn't give him the message, I didn't know what would. He whined and shrank back against the door in a submissive posture, his meaning quite easy to understand this time; He definitely didn't want to argue. But he still didn't leave! I stared at him furiously. Was he stupid or something? It was obvious I wanted him to go, I was broadcasting it with my every movement! Then I sighed and relaxed slightly. Stupid or not, he'd called my bluff.
We stood there staring at each other for some time, and I remained angry at his dumb inability to understand me. Or was it simple pig-headedness on his part? I could remember understanding the wolf's noises when we were in the other apartment, sort of. He was slowly recovering from his terrorized crouch now, and after getting his panting under control he tried repeating the same meaningless noises he'd uttered earlier. He seemed to have lost what little ability to communicate he'd had. Hissing with frustration I realized that I'd either have to spend the time and effort to make him understand me, if he even could, or abandon my home and find somewhere else to be alone, or overcome my inexplicable reluctance and simply kill him. I had enough problems right now just trying to understand myself already, and why should I leave my home...
I decided to kill him.
Moving quickly so that he wouldn't sense or react to my decision, and so that those damned second thoughts that seemed to object to virtually everything I'd wanted to do in the past few hours wouldn't interfere, I coiled and sprang across the distance that separated us. He yelped in surprise as I slammed into him and brought him down hard, attempting to get a firm grip on his neck with my jaws. Unfortunately I missed my aim by a mile and only nipped him, he easily pulled free of my bite. But I had tasted blood, and I felt committed.
We struggled fiercely on the floor, with him trying to wriggle free of my grip and I trying to reconnect with his neck. He kept forcing my head aside, though, and I realized I'd been overconfident; I'd never tried to kill anyone before, and my clumsy attempt now put me in danger. Perhaps I should have taken the time to think about it after all...
As if they'd just caught up with my actions and had seen my sudden doubt as the opportunity to pounce, second thoughts barged into my mind. I wasn't used to this body; it was new, I hadn't been like this before. The wolf hadn't been like this before either. I suddenly realized that this wolf had once been Dan, just as I had once been John. He had been my friend. He could understand me before, perhaps he wasn't too far gone-
Thunder exploded in my head, my vision flaring red with stars. I was suddenly lying on the floor, though I didn't remember falling. There was pain, in my face, in the back of my skull, splitting throbbing pain. I heard harsh breathing, not my own. The wolf! He was in the room, trying to kill me! I struggled to move but my body wouldn't respond properly; I was too far away, and the room was spinning too fast. I barely managed to roll over and push myself to my hands and knees, gasping and shaking.
He'd hit me, I realized. In my moment of distraction, the wolf had hit me! My nose throbbed with pain, and I could already feel it swelling; I saw my blood dripping onto the floor in front of me. I looked up helplessly at the wolf standing over me, unable to protect myself, unable to even try to flee.
He didn't try to finish me off. He looked concerned. I couldn't understand it, probably wouldn't even if I could think through the pounding pain in my head. It hurt to think. I saw him cradling his right hand, and hysterical laughter forced its way up my throat; he must have hurt it when he had hit me.
Then I saw the blood soaking the shoulder of his shirt, and the hysterical laughter turned into hysterical sobs. I wanted the wolf kill me, at least it would stop the torment in my mind. I wanted to crawl into some dark hole and die, to end this confusion. I didn't know what I wanted.
Carefully, gently, the wolf touched my shoulder and murmured something reassuring. I squeezed my eyes tightly shut, sniffling in a futile attempt to clear my poor abused nose. I wanted to be alone. I wanted...
"I'm... sorry..." I rasped the words, not knowing where they came from or even what they really meant. I just knew I wanted to say them.
I don't know how long we stood like that, but eventually I began to recover and start thinking more clearly again. I had a lot to think about; all the hard work I had done so far at resolving my internal conflicts had to be thrown away. Once again I didn't know who I really was or what I really wanted. But at least Dan was here to help me this time. He was talking to me; the large one... Cindy... hadn't. She withdrew, left me to find myself on my own. And it seems I got lost.
It was hard to understand at first, especially since I had to work hard to understand the meaning in Dan's complex noises, but I eventually figured out that I had been confronted with two different ways of thinking. No one told me which was correct; I had had to choose on my own, based on which felt more like the real me, and to suppress the other. I had believed that I was making progress, until I discovered that I simply couldn't understand why Cindy was insisting that I should put those pants back on. I wasn't cold and they had flattened my fur in an uncomfortable way; why should I? And she apparently hadn't understood when I'd tried to explain why I didn't want to. That's when I had realized something was terribly wrong, and decided to get away from the confusion and frustration to think about what was happening.
I had picked the wrong way of thinking, apparently, and I didn't know how to find my way back. Or had everyone else picked the wrong way of thinking, leaving me the only one who was still himself? No, I realized with distress. It was probably me. Only a change in my thought patterns could explain why my own memories no longer made sense to me. I knew I must have lost my human side.
So this is how an animal thinks, I thought. Somehow I expected it to feel stranger. But it felt normal, rational; it made sense to me. It was Dan's so-called "human" thought that was hard to comprehend. I tried to do so anyway; I had to talk with Dan, and it was the only way to really understand him.
First of all, Dan had lived here too; we had shared this place without trying to drive each other out. That was a bit of a stretch, but since I could actually remember it happening I accepted that. I didn't remember how we'd managed it, though.
Second, Cindy was worried about me. That I understood fairly well; she was my girlfriend, we were a pair right now. But the subject of Cindy was somewhat muddled in my own mind; she didn't feel like she should have been my girlfriend, somehow. It must be because we had changed into different species. Again, I could grasp that.
But when Dan tried to explain the clothing thing that had triggered my confusion in the first place, I still drew a total blank. I simply couldn't understand why someone would wear clothing when he didn't need to. The best I managed was to agree to disagree with Dan on that, and he dropped the subject.
Dan, on the other hand, didn't understand how I had climbed walls so easily. I tried to explain that it was simply something that I did now; but he seemed to think there must be more of a reason for it than that. What more reason could there be? I just did it.
He also didn't seem to understand why I'd tried to kill him. I explained how he was in my apartment and wouldn't leave, so I had become frustrated and decided that I had to do it in order to get rid of him; I also explained that I hadn't made the connection between his current wolf appearance and the Dan I had remembered until it was too late. I even explained how I'd acted without thinking about the situation thoroughly enough beforehand, hoping that that would satisfy any remaining misunderstanding. He said that he understood all that, but thought that there was yet another reason why I shouldn't have tried to kill him. I didn't understand it; what did "morally wrong" mean? The best explanation Dan managed was that it meant everyone would try to stop me and punish me if I killed, but I couldn't figure out what their motivation for doing that could be.
I hoped he didn't use these "moral" reasons for deciding things too much; it would probably make me think of him as an unpredictable lunatic.
Eventually I recovered from Dan's blow, leaving only my tender nose still incapacitated, and I realized that with Dan's help I had actually managed to figure out what was going on inside me as I had originally set out to do. I would have to be very careful from now on; everyone around me was effectively insane, from my perspective at least, and they probably thought the same thing of me. But I could deal with that. I decided I wanted to go back to Cindy's place, where Dan said Cindy was waiting. Perhaps I could try talking with her again.
I carefully explained to Dan that I wanted him out of my room when I left, and he agreed; he said that he wanted to come to Cindy's apartment too. I almost told him not to go there either, but after pausing to think about it I realized he probably wasn't after Cindy as well. He just wanted to be near his friends for some other, non-competitive reason. Still, I was a little suspicious so I went with him through the door rather than leaving by the window. The hallways were crowded and confining, but I could take it. Dan assured me that nobody out there was going to do anything unexpected.
But unexpected to whom? I wondered glumly as I followed him out the door. Dan just happened to be insane in the exact same way everyone else was, meaning their irrationalities were consitent with his own. I didn't like having to trust his predictions.
I was still quite nervous as John followed me out into the hall; though I thought I understood a little of what was going on in his mind, that didn't mean I could predict or restrain him. He seemed to be basically an intelligent wild animal now, and one that had already tried to kill me once. I touched my stinging cuts lightly, and winced. It was a good thing John had turned out to have a glass jaw, my arms didn't have as much strength or leverage they once had. It was only total desperation that had given me the strength to fend him off.
The hall was much less crowded now than it had been; I guess everyone was starting to finally settle back down and go home, or perhaps gathering elsewhere else. I thought back to the 'herd' that had seemed to be forming when I'd arrived a few hours ago; in light of John's psychoses I wouldn't be surprised if that's what it really was. I hoped enough people kept a grip on themselves to keep human society working. I hoped I kept a grip on myself too, though I suspected I was in much better shape than John was. All of my memories of human behavior still made sense to me, at least.
Fortunately, the crowd/herd that had been forming outside the dorm was mostly gone now; there were only a few stragglers and non-ungulates left, and they didn't disturb us. Someone must have finally got organized, and had either led them somewhere or dispersed them. I didn't really care about that right now, though; I just wanted to get back to the apartment. I hoped Janice was back when we got there, we needed a little organization of our own.
People glanced at us nervously as we passed, many making attempts to avoid us; considering John's nakedness and the blood on my shirt I'm sure we were quite the sight (and smell). One or two people even hid or walked quickly away from us, and I noted that they all belonged to 'prey' species of one sort or another. I felt oddly glad that I was at least predator of some sort, though I had never been a particularly aggressive person before. I guess if I had to be something, this was better than many of the alternatives.
As if to coincide with my line of thought, I suddenly noticed another wolf-morph sitting on a bench. I mean really noticed; the sudden jumps-out-and-grabs-your-face type of noticing. I dragged John along as I eagerly detoured to meet him. He noticed us coming almost immediately and perked up with interest, but didn't leave the bench. His slight grin faded into a look of concern as we approached.
"Hi! uh..." I began, not quite knowing what to say.
"Hi. Are you okay?"
"What? Oh, the blood. Yeah, we had an accident. I'm okay." I replied with not a little distraction, examining the other wolf's body with fascination. He returned the favor, though not nearly as blatantly as I was. He wasn't very much like me; though our coloration was similar, probably indicating similar species, he hadn't changed to as great a degree as I had. His head was almost as wolflike as mine, but other than that he was much more human-shaped. His feet had changed a little like mine, he probably walked on his toes like me, but unlike me the rest of the leg hadn't shortened that much. He would probably tower over me if he was standing, and I was glad that he wasn't; I felt short enough already. I bet he can't walk on all fours, though, I thought to myself with a slight grin. I don't know why that amused me; I wasn't particularly proud of the ability.
"I'm Dan," I told him, and he offered a hand. I shook it tentatively, noting how much more paw-like mine looked compared to his.
"Hi, Dan. I'm Chris... call me Wolfskin," he corrected himself with a laugh. "It fits me in real life now, too."
"You... were expecting this?" I asked, puzzled.
"Hoping for it, but not expecting it... I've gone by the name before, I've always dreamed of this. I guess I got lucky. You've never wished for a change?"
I shook my head. "Never anything like this. Weird."
Chris shrugged. "Well, I guess it's not for everybody... though I've heard that now it is for everybody, actually, whether they like it or not. I hope I'm not the only one that likes it. I guess classes are cancelled, but have you heard anything else about what's going on?"
I shook my head again. "Sorry, I've been busy all day so far. Last I heard was just stuff on the news this morning." I realized that as much as I'd like to talk, John was already getting impatient. "I'd really love to talk some more, but I still have lots left to do," I said reluctantly. "Do you mind if I, uh...?"
Chris waved me off with a grin. "Sure. See you around, maybe?"
"Sure," I called back as I followed John, who had begun walking as soon as we'd broken off. He was in a hurry to get home, and I guess I was too. I'd just become a bit sidetracked, understandable considering how interesting Chris had been.
"I don't understand," John said quietly to me as we walked, "why did you talk to him so much if you don't know him?"
"Don't worry about it, it's a wolf thing," I dismissed his question lightly. Then I frowned and furrowed my brow, or at least the closest thing I could do with my lupine features. I had bypassed so many others already, why stop to talk to him in particular? "Gee, I guess it really is a wolf thing. I never reacted like that to anyone before, but it felt totally like the right thing to do."
John nodded. "I can understand that feeling," he said, and I felt a chill of fear at his statement. He seemed to notice, and hastily continued. "But don't worry. You're still..." John paused for a long time, searching for the right word. "...incomprehensible, in the same way I remember you before you changed. Does that make sense to you? Words are so..." he paused again, obviously frustrated with the limitations of language.
I nodded. "Yeah, I guess. I'm sorry." I was a little ashamed of displaying such concern in front of John like that; I was essentially saying I was afraid of ending up thinking like him, which I'm sure was quite insulting. I was also still a little worried; wouldn't someone who thought like a cat also find someone who thought like a wolf incomprehensible? There were few baselines to compare myself to, hopefully my memories of being human would be enough. I'd already been able to clearly notice one difference in my thoughts, after all, so if I just kept alert I should be able to notice any others...
We finally reached the apartment building, and I was once again extremely thankful for the elevator. John was not, he nearly couldn't force himself to enter it and really wanted to go back up the outside wall as he'd left; I was still having difficulty figuring out how he managed to climb like that, so I preferred not to deal with it. I convinced him to stay with me all the way to the door. I knocked, and then Janice answered the door. My tail promptly began wagging happily, and I had to physically grab it in order to make it stop. I still had some dignity to maintain, after all, despite the silly grin I wore.
"Dan! John! You're back!" She exclaimed. "Oh, and you're hurt! Come in, come in!"
We came in, and she examined my neck with concern; I cocked my head to give her a better view even as I said "ah, it's nothing. Really." The wounds still stung and they must have looked nasty with all that dried blood, but I didn't think they were that bad, all things considered.
"These look like bite marks," she said. "What happened?"
Meanwhile Cindy was extremely pleased to see John, rushing up and almost bear-hugging (or more accurately, bison-hugging) him. In hindsight I was glad she showed restraint and didn't; it would probably have triggered an unfortunate instinct or something. As it was he shied away, and Cindy hesitated nervously in confusion. "John? Are you all right?"
"Uh, everyone, I can explain everything," I tried to tell them. "Who's that?" I suddenly noticed someone new sitting in the living room; a greenish reptilian someone who was just now reacting to our arrival and starting to stand up.
"Oh, that's Steven," Janice told me soothingly, and I realized that the hair on the back of my neck had stood up and my hackles were raised. So that's what hackles were, I thought. Then I forced myself to calm down; Janice obviously wasn't concerned. The new person stood and faced us, remaining over by the chair; he was a largish tortoise-man wearing nothing but a high-visibility orange and yellow safety vest over his shell. I also noted a utility belt hung over the back of the chair, with a bunch of keys and two-way radio on it. He must be some sort of emergency worker, I realized.
"Hi," he greeted us, speaking slowly and calmly. "I guess you're the two that they were waiting for. Welcome back."
"Uh, thanks," I replied, "I'm Dan. Pleased to meet you." John stared at him suspiciously. Steven nodded politely and settled back into the chair again.
"He's with campus security, he just came by a little while ago," Janice explained. "He's taking a break, he's been running around all day securing things."
"Plodding," Steven corrected in his deadpan tone, "I've been plodding around all day." Janice grinned. Then she turned serious again.
"Now, let's get things back under control. Uh, could you tell me what happened?"
I looked at John questioningly. "John? Do you want to tell them...?"
He looked at me for a moment, then at Cindy. "I think I've lost my mind," he said softly. "I don't understand anything that you're talking about, I can't even understand what some of the words mean. I wanted to be alone, to think, but that didn't help. I tried to kill Dan when he intruded and wouldn't leave."
There was a bit of a shocked silence for a moment. "Oh John," Cindy said, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have pressed you. It's just that I was scared and confused..."
Apparently, John could understand at least that. Carefully watching the rest of us for any adverse reaction, he took Cindy's hand and then hugged her reassuringly. It was an odd contrast, considering their relative sizes. "It's okay," he told her, "I'll figure it out, I hope. But I want to talk with you, I need you to help me understand how you think. I can't do it on my own, I don't know how."
"Okay. I don't understand either, but I'll do whatever you think will help." They held each other for a moment longer, and then Cindy asked hopefully "are you going to put your clothes back on now?"
John, Cindy and Janice retired to Cindy's room, John still feeling uncomfortable when around too many other people and Cindy wanting a little privacy as well. I could understand that; they had a lot to talk about. And John was probably also exhausted, I knew I certainly was. I walked over to the couch for a rest. My legs were aching from overuse; perhaps I should have made more of the trip on all fours. I would have been faster, at least; my shortened legs had required me to hurry in order to match a normal walking pace.
Enough of that, I thought, pushing it out of mind and hopping up onto the couch.
"So, you're Dan, eh?" Steven asked conversationally, relaxing in the chair across the way. He had carefully picked up a teacup in his stubby paws and sipped delicately with his stiff, reptilian lips.
"Yup," I replied. "Are you a friend of Janice's?"
"Well, I'm more of an acquaintance, I guess. I was in the neighborhood, and thought I'd stop by to see if she was all right." I nodded; he didn't seem to be a threat, and any guest of Janice's was probably an okay guy. I was also glad to finally see someone in authority around here, even if only a campus security guy taking a rest break.
Janice came back out of Cindy's room, leaving the two alone to talk, and stepped into the bathroom. She took a a bottle of sharp-smelling antiseptic and a cloth out of a cupboard. "Right, let's have a look at that neck," she said professionally, walking over and sitting next to me.
"But I'm fine, and that stuff stinks," I grumbled, but complied anyways. She probably knew what she was doing, after all. I trusted her.
Janice unscrewed the cap. "Phew!" she gasped, her nostrils clamping shut of their own accord, "I guess you're not the only one around here with a more sensitive schnoz now." I didn't mention that I'd already smelled it before she'd even opened the bottle. "But bites are nasty for infections; I'd better clean it a bit anyways. Here."
I winced and whined slightly as she dripped the antiseptic on my neck and dabbed at it with the cloth. "Sorry," she muttered. I gritted my teeth and forced myself to keep silent as she continued. "I don't think you'll need any bandages," she mused when she'd finished, "probably a good thing considering this fur." She put the cap back on the bottle and set it aside, along with the now-bloodied cloth. I hoped that would be all that I'd need.
"How's Cindy in there?" I asked.
"Worried, but John promises to keep his head. He insisted on opening the window, though; said it made him feel safer."
He probably wants an escape route in case of trouble, I surmised, and told Janice about the superhuman wall-clinging ability John had displayed. She nodded. "Cindy told me about it after I got back, and Steven here has a superpower too. He says he's got a force field."
I looked at Steven, and he nodded. "It makes sense, I guess," he said. "A big moose took a swing at me and I sort of curled into a ball. He couldn't even touch me, he just pushed me around until he gave up trying. And I noticed a bird man actually flying earlier, that's probably not natural."
And that was all we had to say about that; to quote John, that's just the way it was. We didn't even know where to start to come up with a possible explanation, and considering everything else that had happened to us a few superpowers seemed like just another detail. Abstract curiosity would have to wait.
Suddenly, Steven's radio beeped and he picked it up. "Steven," he answered.
"Hey, are you done with your break? We've got a situation!" A voice squawked.
"I guess," Steven sighed. "What's up?"
"There's a rampaging bull in the Biological Sciences building! It's got some people trapped, apparently."
Steven sighed again. "I'm on my way," he said, and got to his feet. "Thanks for the tea," he told Janice as he slung the belt across his chest (he didn't have a definite waist to speak of), and plodded to the door. Janice saw him off, then came back and sat down next to me again.
"I wonder if that's another person like John..." she mused. I shook my head and lay down with a groan; I was too tired to think about things like that right now, and now that Steven was gone I felt much more uninhibited and at ease. I yawned and relaxed. A short time later, I fell asleep. It was only the middle of the afternoon, but it had already been a very long day.
I sat quietly on my poor, crushed couch for a few minutes, struggling to resist the urge to scritch Dan's ears as he lay curled beside me. I didn't know if it would be polite or appropriate, though he certainly deserved thanks for all that he'd just done. I could hear Cindy and John talking in her room, and while it wasn't much of a conversation at least everything seemed under control again. For now.
I sighed. There was still a lot I had to get done; there was little food left in the apartment and neither Dan nor I had had much to eat today. Glancing over at Dan, I realized that he had fallen asleep. Good. I got up as quietly as I could and picked up Dan's walkman radio from the table where he'd left it; I wanted to see if there was any new news. I had a little difficulty sticking the speakers in my nonhuman ears, but I soon figured it out and went to get a pad of paper to do some serious thinking and planning.
It had been an incredible day, and the repercussions would undoubtably last a long time even if we all woke up tomorrow in our old forms again. Not that there was any hint that might happen, and in the absence of evidence I of course had to assume it wouldn't. That meant I might as well assume our condition was permanent, and plan ahead accordingly. We would have some shopping to do, so I jotted down a short list of ideas. Simple meats, vegetables, and hold off on the pasta I guess. Better hear what the biologists had to say before trying any processed foods.
Then, just as I found a good radio station from the unusually empty frequencies, the power went out and the station quit broadcasting. "Typical," I muttered with another sigh.
"Janice? What's going on?" Cindy opened her door and asked plaintively.
"Shh," I shushed, pointing to Dan and bashing my nose as I tried to put a finger to my lips. "He's asleep. Don't worry, it's just a power failure. The plants are probably short-staffed." Cindy nodded and retreated back into her room. I rubbed my snout ruefully; I guess my reflexes still hadn't become used to some of my new proportions. It must be even harder for Cindy and especially for Dan, I suspected.
But I could get used to it eventually, I suspected, and probably so could they. People were flexible things, and we were definitely still people despite the extra fuzziness. Even John, I hoped. Scanning the dial some more, I finally found an emergency broadcast station with its own generator. We could manage.
The announcer wasn't as personable as the other station's had been, but the news was just as detailed; despite the power failure just now, things were apparently getting back under control. Edmonton just happened to have the largest military base in western Canada sitting to the north of the city, and so there had been a large supply of people available to keep order. It looked like the supermarkets might even be open when we went for food. Elsewhere the reports were mixed and incomplete, but there was a surprising lack of chaos even on a global scale. Everyone had done pretty much what we had done; sat tight and waited for developments to work themselves out. Enough people had showed up at vital jobs to keep things functioning reasonably well.
I grinned and shook my head sadly; this power failure would probably mess up Leon, Kelly and Mr. Hansen's efforts to get the local computer network back online. Perhaps I could stop by there again after the power came back on, to see if I could help...
Glancing over at Dan's sleeping form, I decided to put that off for now. I had responsibilities here, and considering what had happened the last time I went out of the apartment I figured we'd better stay close to John. He might still be unstable, despite his assurances to the contrary. I wondered if I should go down to the university hospital or the Department of Psychology to see if anyone had any ideas.
It would have to wait, though, at least until after the blackout was over. I went into the kitchen to see what food was left after Cindy's predations, and after a bit of scavenging managed to find enough to make a sandwich. Then I put it in a ziplock and set it aside for when Dan woke up; I'm sure he needed it much more than I did.
There wasn't much else to do, aside from listen to the radio some more. That was rapidly becoming boring; the newscaster was just repeating a small amount of information over and over to fill the time. I listened to it anyways, shaking my head slightly over how quickly this change had become mundane in the face of the more pressing problems it had indirectly caused. I promised myself that I would spend a little time in wonder and amazement over it all later, after everything was sorted out, and sat down in the armchair to rest.
Then I fell asleep, too.
Eventually I was dragged back to awareness by the sound of Dan getting off the couch. I watched him silently for a moment, marvelling at how much like a real wolf he moved when he was on all fours, and then mumbled "guess I was a little tired, too," and rubbed the sleep from my eyes. I flinched in surprise as my thick fingertips touched my furry, altered face, then I finished waking up and remembered that it was supposed to be like that. Sort of.
"Oh! Sorry, I didn't mean to wake you." Dan apologised, quickly rising to his hind legs.
I waved him off. "Don't worry, I was just dozing. Oh, I see the power's back on. What's up? Going somewhere?" I noticed that he had picked up a backpack.
"Uh, I was thinking of going to the dorm to bring back some food. I'm a little hungry, and I thought you might be too..."
I pointed to the sandwich I'd made earlier. "I saved that for you, help yourself. But... did you ask John about this?"
Dan frowned and rubbed his neck. "I figured I'd better not tell him... do you think I should?"
I stroked the fur on my chin thoughtfully; it was decision-making time again. "Well, I think it's only fair to ask him, I assume your grocery budget was shared. And we've eventually got to find out how rational he is, too. We should ask first."
"Well, okay. If you say so," Dan agreed reluctantly. I got to my feet and headed over to Cindy's room, Dan following close on my heels.
John and Cindy were still inside, and everything seemed alright with them; John was looking out of the open window at the campus below, his expression unreadable but calm, and Cindy was sitting on the edge of her bed occasionally talking with him as she experimented with safety pins to fasten her bedsheet-toga more securely. She had actually managed to fashion it into a very practical outfit, all things considered.
"Hey, everyone," I knocked on the doorframe and greeted them cheerfully. "Can we come in?"
"Sure," Cindy rumbled. Despite how much her voice had deepened, though, I could still make out some of her old sound in it. I grinned at the incongruity.
"Dan and I were just thinking about things to do next, and I thought we should get together and work out a plan," I told them. "We were just thinking about places to get some more food, for example. John, how do you feel about sharing some of the stuff from your dorm room?" I tried to subtly cross my fingers, but they didn't work as I had expected.
John looked at me silently for a moment, and I suspected that he was carefully thinking through the situation step-by-step. "I don't feel good about it," he said at last in that soft velvety voice of his, "but I did eat some of your food when I first came here. It would just be... t-trading, right?"
I nodded. "Right. And just until we can do some shopping or something."
"Okay, I'm game. But I will go, too." Cindy smiled slightly; I think it must have been John's use of the expression 'I'm game'. I recalled that it was one he used a lot before the change, so it might be a good sign. I was also pleased that he didn't seem ready to rip anyone's throats out this time, although he certainly didn't sound happy.
"I think we should all go," I said. "We need to see what's going on out there anyways, and I don't want to split up again. What do you think?"
Cindy shifted uncomfortably in her toga, tugging at the hems. "I don't know, can't I wait here?" Cindy asked. "I would prefer waiting here."
"Are you sure?" I asked, disappointed; I had hoped she would come. Cindy nodded. Then Dan spoke up.
"I know what you mean, it's really embarrassing going out there. It's like getting caught in your underwear in public, only hairier. It seemed like lots of people were like that, too."
"Don't worry, I'm sure no one's going to recognize you," I added, hoping Dan had guessed the problem accurately. John just seemed confused, which not surprising considering his lack of modesty.
"I... I haven't gone outside yet," Cindy responded, somehow managing to sound small and frightened.
An expression of resolve settled on John's face and he went over to her, sitting down next to her and stroking her arm comfortingly. "I'll be there, and they will too. It'll be alright."
"But... I thought you didn't understand," Cindy said. A look of upset replaced John's resolve.
"I don't, dammit!" He snarled. "I can't see what bothers you about your body, you just look different! But I can see that it does bother you, and I don't know how to help. I can't think that way." He looked at Dan and I helplessly, hoping for an answer.
I shrugged. "He's got a point, Cindy; I don't think looks matter too much any more. The old standards of beauty are probably pretty much inapplicable now."
"Oh sure, but all of you are just fine!" Cindy retorted, tears brimming her eyes. "It's just not fair, you're half camel and you still manage to look good. Why couldn't I have been a cat?" John held her close as she sniffled daintily through her large, flat, leathery nose.
Well, that left me off-balance for a moment; I would have hoped for a little more than just 'managing' to look good! But I set that aside for now; Cindy was serious. Between the three of us, however, we eventually managed to convince her to come along. John was even willing to finally put on some light clothing, just to make her feel better about going out. He looked rather uncomfortable in it. Not to mention a little effeminate; the only clothing we had available and that he'd accept belonged to Cindy and I.
But finally everything was sorted out, and we ventured forth into the hallway and down the stairs. Cindy's inexperience showed, assuming one could call the rest of us 'experienced'; John held one hand and I held the other as we went, which was a little difficult in these tight confines. At least, they were tight for Cindy; several times she accidentally tore strips from the ceiling's acoustical tiles with her horns. I hoped she didn't stumble over her hooves, she could probably knock down walls or squash someone if she fell wrong.
When we got outside, an amazing sight greeted me; normalcy. Or at least, relative normalcy; I still didn't see any ordinary humans around. But the knotted crowds and the dazed wanderers had largely cleared away; there were even a few cars driving nearby, suggesting that the main roads might be beginning to clear of some of the gridlock. It had been a good many hours since everyone had changed, but according to the news there had been problems with abandoned cars on the roads. I briefly considered trying to get home to my parents, but quickly decided against it for now; it could wait until tomorrow at least, and I had got that email out assuring them I was okay. I hoped they were, too.
Then a flurry of motion caught my eye, and I looked up into the sky to see two bird-morphs flying high overhead in clear violation of several laws of physics. I shook my head in wonder. I'd better forget about my earlier thoughts of normalcy, I realized; everything was different now. There was a whole new world for me to figure out, a whole new existence built out of the old.
I hoped Dan and John had kept a diverse and well-stocked pantry. I was looking forward to finding out what I could eat, and then eating a lot of it.