"It will blow over," I said, in as confident and reassuring a tone as I could manage. "It's just going to be another one of those 'Christ in a cracker' or 'I saw Bigfoot at WalMart' stories that the media runs when there isn't any real news to report. That's all."
The photo had turned-up the day after I got back from my stay in Mexico, and was a sidebar or bottom-of-the page item on most of the mainstream news sites. We hadn't dared peek at the fringe sites or the ones that featured what they said was cryptozoology - what Neeka called booger-science. This was just the sort of thing they'd use to justify any number of aliens-among-us conspiracy theories.
Leonora gave me a look that I didn't want explained. Her comment might not be something any of us would be comfortable hearing.
"Not that I'm comparing myself to ... you know. It's just that people think they see things all the time. Next week it will be Elvis in a mini-mart in Mississippi."
"Let's hope you're right," Neeka said. "But this wasn't Elvis, or Mississippi, and it wasn't some none-too-credible eyewitness talking about seeing Sasquatch or little green men. It was two Paleontology grad-students and their Professor on their way to do some fieldwork."
"What is a kwetz-all-coat-ell?" Jeff asked, his nose in the computer screen.
"That's Quetzalcoatl," I corrected, although my pronunciation couldn't have been much better than his. "A two thousand year-old Aztec deity."
"Aren't the Aztecs all dead now?" Jeff asked.
"Civilizations may die, but Gods do not," Leonora said. "The live as long as there are people who believe in them. Many more will believe in this one, now that you have awakened it."
"Hey!" I said, indignantly. "I didn't awaken it, I just tried to copy something that wouldn't remind anyone who happened to see it of anything to do with The Dragon. I thought picking something the locals would recognize might work."
"I do not think denial will deter your worshipers. They will simply say that you have God within you. And they will be right."
"What? Now wait..."
"It's a good picture," Neeka said, interrupting the theological argument before it could get going. "Much better than the usual out-of-focus mess the monster-hunters claim as 'proof' that their favorite booger exists. Is that your fanny-pack on your back between your wings? You can see the strap there. You're lucky it doesn't show terribly well from this angle. At least they didn't get a video or it would be all over YouTube."
"I tried to match a painting in a book of Alejandro's," I said. "But it had wings that were too small and too close to the head. They have to be at the center of mass for it ... me to be able to fly. Bigger too."
"I don't think those differences will matter to anyone," Neeka said. "All anyone has seen of this thing in two millennia is some stone carvings and I can't find two of those that looked alike."
"It wasn't easy to keep my balance, either. I had to keep moving or I'd flip over and fall. You can't tell from this photo, but I'm actually slithering through the air with my body flattened-out to get more lift."
"Like a real flying snake?" Jeff asked.
"Yeah, if there were such a thing."
"But there is!"
"NatGeo, remember? Burt let us watch anything educational. Flying snakes live in Borneo, Sumatra and places like that. Only they don't have wings, so they just glide."
"Do they have feathers?"
"Well, there's that. See, I have a feathered crest behind my head and another bunch on my tail. The tail-feathers help me keep my head up and the ones behind my head help me stay pointed in the right direction. The spines down my back don't do anything. They're just decorative."
"Why have you got your mouth open?" Jeff asked. "Showing off your pointy teeth?"
"I don't know. Maybe because I was scared I was going to crash through somebody's window. Heck, I'm still amazed that I was able to pull all that together and make it work. Something like that couldn't possibly have really existed."
"The carvings are all more like symbols than pictures," Neeka said. "Obviously none of the artists had ever seen one. That makes it more likely that the beast never existed.
"It existed then," Leonora insisted. "Just as it exists now."
"Are you trying to argue the improbability of the existence of some mythical creature you managed to turn into?" Neeka asked me. "Do you not see the irony here? Everything you turn into is by definition a mythical creature because they are all products of your own imagination."
"And I'm more improbable than any of them? Yeah, I get it. Believe me, the absurdity of my situation has not escaped my notice."
"You know, it does sorta look like you posed for the photo," Jeff said, not actually accusing me of anything.
"The picture must have been taken when I was flying over the road going through the town. I wasn't terribly high-up at that point. And all my concentration was on finding a spot to land in ... or not to crash in, anyway. I took off by basically jumping off a cliff. I had no clue how I was going to land again, so I was trying to hit the balance between going fast enough to stay in the air and slow enough to keep from getting hurt when I hit. I did pretty good ... considering."
"It's impossible to get the right scale from this picture," Neeka said. "The mountain in the background makes stuff in the foreground look huge. Anyone who didn't know you've only got just over a hundred pounds to work with would think you were much larger."
"I appreciate your imprecision. But that just means it's very unlikely that anyone would connect me with that thing and that's all I care about. We don't need people knowing that I was hanging out with a big-time drug kingpin like Alejandro Cordoba. If his mountain gets overrun with Quetzalcoatl hunters like Loch Ness gets overrun with people looking for Nessie, I won't be terribly unhappy. It serves him right for trapping me with that harness."
"Why did you bring that back?" Neeka wanted to know.
I shrugged. "Why do you still have that tail? I think the harness is cool. It makes me feel like one of those kick-ass comic book heroines."
Jeff kept his face to the computer screen, but I saw him smile. I'd brought the harness back partly to see if he liked it on me, since he was into the kind of comics that featured busty heroines wearing skin-tight outfits that are more skin than substance. It worked better than I could have imagined. My first night back, I'd almost done to him what I almost did to Alejandro. Although Jeff had recovered quicker. The advantage of being twenty years younger. Not to mention having the sexual stamina of his superhero alias – Tomcat.
Neeka flicked her two-foot-long tail. That was a skill she'd mastered so she could call attention to her chestnut appendage. She did it amazingly well, too. She could control it completely without moving her hips. That made the tail seem like a completely convincing and natural extension of her tail-bone, instead of just an anal-suppository that had been used as a prop in some rather extreme BDSM videos.
It also proved to be a strong attractor for males. More-so for those who were into female buttocks. And particularly for those who preferred posterior penetration. In short, ass-men who would see her anal dexterity as a promise of unbounded pleasure if they could only convince her to use her retrograde skill on their male members.
Fortunately, wearing it full-time was impractical. Otherwise she would have had a herd of backdoor-buddies following her around all day. She still wore the thing whenever she could, which was most of the time at the beach house, and on a few memorable occasions when we'd gone out partying.
I blamed myself, actually. A while back, I'd managed to get both of us into an audition for jobs performing in some porn films that featured some really hard anal action. We had a good reason for going there, one having to do with investigating a series of gruesome murders, but the lead proved to be a dead-end. After an intense break-in and training session, we managed to escape with our abused assholes considerably loosened - and with a new-found appreciation for analism. While I could take it or leave it, Neeka had developed a partiality to rear-entry that had ultimately led to her adopting the posterior-pacifier and teaching her ass to use it. And use it with devastating effect, to judge by the number of guys whose eyes were drawn to every twitch and flick of her tail.
Jeff was definitely attracted by the tail, but I guessed that was less because he wanted her to let him replace it with something of his than simply because he had one too. Having something in common with someone, however fake, had to be a nice thing for Jeff. Whichever it was, Neeka waving it around was impossible for him to ignore, even if he was temporarily unable to respond because I'd wrung him dry.
When one flick failed to get the expected rise out of our aptly-named Tomcat, Neeka upped the ante. She thrashed it back and forth and then around in a circle while we all watched in frank admiration of her anal adeptness.
"If there were any flies in here," I told her when her display subsided, "I think you got them."
Instead of a snappy reply, she snapped her tail at me like a whip.
"You're getting dangerous with that thing," I told her. "Maybe we should register your butt as a deadly weapon."
"Maybe we should," she said, swishing menacingly.
I reached out to grab the tail, but she shied away.
"Why don't you have a tail?" Jeff asked me, probably to forestall the horseplay he saw coming. "I mean, dragons usually do. Even werewolves sometimes."
"Technically," I said, "Quetzalcoatl is all tail. But you're right. I hadn't thought about being tailless. I suppose with The Dragon it was because it started as just an image on my skin and grew from there. The werewolf doesn't because I don't. It's that simple. Up to now, I've been limited to things that I could Change into that would still fit into my suit. That's getting harder to find a reason to wear since the last few upgrades I seem to have gone through. And because I have a greater variety of things I can be. Before, I was just making minor changes."
"The Dragon is minor?" Jeff sounded incredulous, and I appreciated that.
"Well, let's say it's basic. It comes from way back in the part of our DNA we don't use anymore. I didn't need any, ah ... additional material to make it."
"That 'additional material'. Is that what I think it is?"
"Yeah. It is."
"So you can turn into whoever ... whatever you ... you know?"
"I've never thought of it that way. What I use, and how, that's hard to explain. It isn't like putting on a dress and a pair of shoes. It's more complicated. And scary too. At least the werewolf scared the pee out of me the first time I saw it."
"Wait a minute! You mean because we ... because I ... you can turn into me?"
"Um, I guess. Theoretically, anyway. I've never tried to imitate a ... donor."
"Well, it would be totally freaky, for one thing!"
"What? You mean... ?"
"Yeah! See if you can turn into me."
"Are you sure?"
"Come on, it will be cool! And don't you like ... need to know?"
Jeff was right. I did need to know. Just like I needed to know how a taser would affect me. Just like I needed to know how my new scales would stand up to small-weapons fire. But mostly I'd been finding excuses not to experiment with my abilities. I'd only tried the Quetzalcoatl because it was nothing like anything I'd done before, and because I really liked the picture I'd found.
I pulled off my t-shirt and shorts and got down on the floor on my knees. Being naked probably wouldn't make a difference, but wearing clothes while making an unfamiliar Change had almost got me killed before. That wasn't likely to happen here, but a precedent is a precedent.
My 'file' with Jeff's DNA wasn't as easy to find as I'd thought. It was shoved in among others I assumed were part of the cat family and some other stuff that didn't have the right vibe when I touched it. Eventually it all fell into place, and I started the Change.
It wasn't anywhere close to being as extreme as becoming Quetzalcoatl. That was my new outer limit. It wasn't even as extreme as my werewolf. The only thing that felt unusual about it was the tail growing out of my rear.
I opened my eyes and looked around to gauge the reactions. I'd hoped for 'amazed', or 'impressed'. What I got skewed more toward 'puzzled'.
"What?" I asked. "Did I screw it up?"
"No, you did it." Neeka said. "But you need to look in the mirror."
Since her beach house was used for guests, Leonora had thoughtfully provided a mirror near the front door. I went over and looked in it.
"Damn! So close! How did I do that?"
The image in the glass wasn't Jeff. It was the inverse of Jeff. Where his fur was black with white splotches, mine was white with black. The pattern was the same, just the other way around.
Paws, ears, eyes, tail – all were correct. There was just one other difference.
"You're female," Jeff said, coming up behind me to compare our reflections.
"Well, I've never tried to switch sides," I explained. "It's strange enough turning into something..."
I trailed off. Something in the sound of his voice told me it was no idle observation.
The vibrations of his growl went through me like an electric current. Without thinking, I arched my back and presented my hindquarters to him.
Jeff needed no further invitation. He shucked off his shorts and assumed the position.
"Hey! Get a room!" Neeka called, stamping her foot.
It was too late for that. Jeff thrust into me. He snarled. I yowled. We went at it like ... well, like cats in heat.
I heard Neeka threaten to get a pan of water, then I lost myself in the moment.
Sometime later, I woke up in Jeff's bed. I didn't remember how I got there, but I was glad we'd decided at some point to continue in private.
The clock said 4am. Normally, I would have rolled over and dived back into dreamland as quickly as possible, but something told me that wasn't going to happen right away. Rather than fight my intuition, I eased out of bed and tiptoed out of the dark room on bare feet. Human feet, since I'd reverted to normal after falling asleep.
Going down the hall, I peeked in on Neeka. She was asleep in her bed, with Leonora beside her. The pillows and bedspread on the floor told me someone's heat must have been contagious.
I went downstairs, through the dark house and out onto the veranda. The moon was bright, but on the wrong side of the sky from where I was used to seeing it. There was a slight breeze blowing from the water and I walked down the steps, past the rustling palmetto fronds, across the yard and out the wooden walk to the small dock at the end. I stood there in the moonlight with water and sky all around me and pondered.
I was up at that hour because I'd done two new things, and I knew both would bother me until I'd worked through in my head what they meant and how I felt about them. The first was that I'd Changed into Jeff. Or at least, a female version of Jeff. I'd never tried to become someone specific before and it seemed somehow to be unethical to mimic someone that closely. It felt like I was stealing his identity. Using bits and pieces of someone's DNA to make something new seemed fair, like quoting a published source in a school paper. Using that analogy, copying the whole thing was pure plagiarism. That was probably why I'd unconsciously flipped my coloration, because I'd shied away from becoming an exact copy.
The other small difference in my imitation of Jeff was the other reason I was awake. I hadn't become Jeff, but the female version of Jeff. His odd DNA configuration didn't matter at all to me. I could rearrange my genes into things way stranger than him. And I had. Becoming Quetzalcoatl was hands-down the most extreme thing I'd ever done. There, I wasn't making a version of something, or a combination of a couple of things, or a skin-job makeover. That was a totally new creature – assuming the original was actually a myth, something no one could really say - Leonora's positivity and Neeka's skepticism notwithstanding. If anything, and if I bought into Leonora's argument that I had awakened a God, then I should be experiencing some sort of massive spiritual or philosophical crisis associated with the ultimate act of hubris. Yet breathing life into a dusty old deity didn't give me anything like the misgivings I did from turning myself into Jeff's better half.
And that was facing the true problem. Even if I'd tried to foresee the problems that becoming Jeff might bring up, I would never have thought of that one. That I'd be making myself into his ideal mate. The only person on Earth who was totally compatible with him. I'd become his female twin, and the very next thing we'd done was screw ourselves silly. But had I become Jeff, or his sister? Was having sex with him masturbation ... or incest?
The first was OK, if a touch unsettling. I mean, assuming it's OK to have sex with yourself, which, discounting masturbation, was sort of an open question and not one that anyone else who wasn't a contortionist would ever have to try to answer. But when I was doing it, I was still me, not him. When Neeka and I had been experimenting with mind-mingling, we'd indulged in some deeply intimate lovemaking where neither of us could really say whose body it was doing what to whom. It was just 'us' and getting lost in each other was part of the fun, even if it was a little scary. We'd backed away from that because we were afraid of the possibility that we could actually end up in the wrong body or worse, not be able to separate our minds at all. Yeah, it was that weird.
This wasn't anything like that scary or complicated. This was two discrete personalities, one of whom had rearranged herself into a close approximation of the other. I'd achieved a near-total genetic match that technically meant I was temporarily Jeff's fraternal twin. The essential bit of that was the word 'temporarily'. Since I could, and inevitably would, Change back, did I really have to worry about hauling a load of emotional and moral baggage along with me? Or, was the ephemeral nature of the experience a sort of blanket absolution?
If I started with the assumption – Neeka's position as well – that everything I turned into was a manifestation of my imagination, then the things I became had no more separate moral culpability than a child's imaginary playmate. I couldn't pass that buck along with a shrug and a "she did it, not me".
Catholics believe that the thought is as good as the deed when it comes to being guilty of stuff. If so, then perhaps that logic also worked the other way around – even if you did something technically bad, but had no evil intent, then it wasn't something you should be agonizing over.
As for spotting evil, I considered myself an expert in the field. I mean, I could see Leonora as a victim of circumstance, the Torturer as misguided, the Horseman as salvageable, and Cordoba as having made a questionable career choice. I could even see that Mr. Supreme Ruler For Life had a goal other than simply ruining his victims' lives. But I was unshakable in my belief that Biggerstaff - the pornstar killer, and Hill - the cannibal and necrophiliac were the real deal. Those two were evil with a capital E.
So, if there was no legitimate third-party who could be blamed – Jeff's "sister" didn't really exist – then it was only my imagination running wild. And if I didn't intend to do anything wrong or enjoy any wrongdoing for it's own sake, then I had nothing to feel guilty about. Right?
Working through it didn't completely put my mind at ease. I know I have too great a capacity for rationalization and denial to feel good about letting it go that easily. But I did manage to satisfy myself that there was nothing inherently wrong with what I'd done. Any unforeseen and unintended consequences that arose from it could be dealt with as separate issues.
To prove to myself that I'd made the right decision and I had no reason to lie awake, I went back to Jeff's room instead of my own. I was trying to slip back into bed when he turned over.
"I'm awake," he said. "Where have you been?"
"Oh? Me too."
The pause went on painfully long. The conversational ball was in my court, so I decided to serve it.
"How do you feel about, um, it?"
"It was awesome. It felt so ... right! So ... perfect!"
I could tell there was something else, so I waited.
"Please don't be mad at me, but let's not do that again."
"You mean me Changing into you?"
"Yeah, that. Not ... you know."
"So 'you know' is still OK?"
"Damn skippy! It's just that doing it with you ... like that ... it's too perfect. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the hell out of it, but I'm afraid if we keep doing it like that, I'll get ... used to doing it like that and I won't want to do it any other way. Did I say that right?"
"It's OK. I understand."
"It just wasn't real. Anything that ... right ... should be real."
"It's like falling in love with someone else's imaginary friend."
"OK, that's weird. You totally nailed it though. That's just what it's like."
"Then we're good?"
"Yeah, we're good."
That could have been less awkward, but it was enough to quiet my naggy conscience. Sleep came quickly after that.
The place being what it was, and the trainees who they were, no roll was usually taken in class, only a head-count. That wasn't the case for presentations involving material classified Confidential or higher. There they did check to make sure we were who we were supposed to be and we were supposed to be there. But, if you missed a session, no notice was taken, officially or otherwise. It was assumed by everyone that you'd been called-up to rejoin whatever group you belonged to for reasons that were never questioned or discussed.
So I was able to rejoin my classes after a few days of being gone and no one said boo to me about it. This was very different from High School, where any unexplained absence was cause for investigation and interrogation by the administration as well as the usual bunch of busybodies who just had to know everything about everybody.
While the whole culture of secrecy was necessary, I missed people like Becca Schneiderman, Becca was a transfer from a school in New Jersey. Her parents had been killed in a tragic railroad-crossing incident in Pennsylvania while celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary and Becca had been taken in by her grandparents, who brought her along when they retired and moved South.
I understand it's some kind of tradition for Northerners to relocate to Florida when they retire. This creates a local surplus of Yankees and the inevitable cultural clash that implies. Usually this manifests as a tendency on the part of newcomer couples to appear in public with the man wearing black dress-socks with sandals and a Hawaiian shirt over plaid Bermuda shorts with his wife in a floral-patterned muumuu two sizes too large for her. To us locals, the novelty and hilarity of this tacky spectacle wore off a long time ago.
Becca was, to put it mildly, the inquisitive type. She always had to know where you were going, where you'd been, who with, and doing what. At first I thought it was an obsession with me, but she treated everyone that way. Eventually I decided that it was because losing her parents and having to move had given her an intense need to feel connected to people, even at the risk of turning them against her by getting her nose too far up into their business.
Between the understandable level of secrecy surrounding the facilities at Hurlburt, the large number of people I was around all day, and the limited number I could talk to without worrying about every word that came out of my mouth, I almost wished Becca would turn up. She would have been a natural interrogator, after all. An hour alone with her and she'd know every secret in your head.
Most schools insist you turn your cell phone off in class. That wouldn't work in a place where a large number of the students were on detached duty and subject to recall on a moment's notice – usually by text message. While this wasn't by any means routine, it did happen, and when it did everything came to a sudden stop while those affected ran for transport or to their assembly points, sometimes only to be told that the alert-status for their group had been elevated and half an hour later told things were fine and they could resume their normal activities.
Our assembly point was the small building next to the taxiway. It was convenient to the field, but sometimes not so much from wherever our classes were being held. Not that the area was a large one. The walk home was a longer distance than from any place we'd been to our briefing room. But when your phone beeps the adrenalin can get to flowing pretty freely and a few blocks can be an annoyingly long distance.
It was only a week after my Mexican vacation that I was in an Advanced Urban Warfare Scenarios symposium, which is just what it sounds like, a bunch of 'experts' talking about the differences between shooting someone across a field under a sunny sky and shooting someone across a room full of smoke and dust. I suppose it's good to know that when entering a room, you're supposed to position your body and your weapon so that you cover incremental portions of the room, rather than jumping through the door and making a nice big target of yourself, but since my personal technique would have involved doing exactly that to draw fire and locate the source of the danger, I felt the same as I did watching commercials for hair replacement for men – "they ain't talking to me".
When my phone beeped I was out of the room before the instructor could look up from his notes. I was down the hall and out the front door of the building before I even thought to read the message to make sure it wasn't a wrong number or someone trying to sell me vinyl siding.
I stopped just long enough to verify that it wasn't a false alarm, then I took off again, happy to be out of the lecture and even happier to be moving. Some lectures numb your brain, and some numb your butt. This one did both and I rejoiced in being out of there and into the fresh air and sunlight.
Actually, I rejoiced a little too much. I made a dumb mistake. I turned a corner and started across the street at the intersection before looking to see if there was any traffic coming. I was moving at a good clip with my toes barely making contact with the pavement when I realized I was heading right into the path of a Humvee.
The driver saw me run out in front of him. I could see his 'oh, shit' expression when he realized he was probably going to hit me. He stomped the brake immediately, but those things do not stop on a dime and he had to know it was useless.
I had a snap decision to make. I could keep going and get hit. I could try to jump out of the way as soon as my foot touched the ground. Or I could drop and hope that I could get flat enough quick enough for the high ground-clearance of the thing to miss me.
Scaling-up wasn't part of the decision process. That had started as soon as I realized the fix I was in, and without me even thinking about it. As reflexes go, it was a damn good one.
I decided to jump. As soon as my toe touched, I pushed hard, and felt my leg slip out from under me on a spot of oil on the asphalt. Instead of soaring into the air, I flopped face-first onto the ground and slid under the front of the vehicle just as it rolled over on top of me and came to a stop.
"Oh freaking great!" I muttered, and de-scaled to minimize the humiliation factor as much as possible. Superheroines who get run over crossing the street don't inspire a load of confidence and I didn't need a story like that going around.
I heard a door open and the driver got down on his hands and knees to look under the Humvee, no doubt expecting to see a mangled mess.
"Are you OK?" He asked, obviously terrified of whatever answer he might get.
He was talking to my feet, since I'd gone under head-first.
"I've been better," I said, for lack of anything snappier.
"You hang on. I'll call an ambulance."
"Nevermind that. Just drag me out of here."
"You need to lie still. Try not to move at all. You could be hurt worse than you think."
He knew the book on how to treat an accident victim and he was going by it.
"Please! Don't call anyone. This is my fault. Oh, hell. If you won't pull me out I'll do it myself."
I could have crawled out, but I'd already discovered that the road had oil spots on it and I didn't want to get any filthier than I probably already was. I pushed the ground with my hands and backed up into a frog-squat, then I reached up and pushed against the bottom of the Humvee.
I pushed it up until I was able to roll off my ankles and onto my feet. Then I stood up while walking backwards with my hands and feet until I'd reached the side of the vehicle. Once I was clear, I lowered it back down to the ground slowly, trying not to break anything.
"That weighs five thousand pounds!" The driver announced.
"How did you do that?"
"I work out." I'll keep saying that until I can think of something better. "I've really got to run."
"Uh, need a lift?" He'd gotten over being startled and was having me a good look at me that didn't include checking for injuries.
"Thanks, but I can run faster than you can drive."
"Oh. OK. You be careful."
That was good advice and I wished I'd thought of it myself. I hopped up and gave him a quick peck on the cheek before turning and jumping over the Humvee.
Rather than risk another accident, I jumped the length of the next block, making sure that I landed someplace other than the middle of the road. Since no one was shooting at me, I was cool with traveling in a ballistic arc. When I'd landed, instead of jumping again, I stopped. Why exactly was I leaping about like an idiot when I could fly?
I'd flown twice. Both times successfully, if you counted getting down in one piece. All the pilots I'd met assured me that the sole criteria for a good landing was that you walk away afterward. I had managed that much. Heck, I'd even soloed. Granted, the two winged forms I'd Changed into were a trifle non-standard. The first was a lot like a legless harpy. It was terribly unstable, but I'd been a bit rushed at the time, not to mention busy cradling a nuclear bomb in my arms. It also wasn't technically flying. More a sort of protracted fall that ended better than it should have.
My second try worked well enough for me to fly several miles. I had been concerned about the takeoff, and launching from the end of a terrace hanging over a precipice had gone a long way toward giving me time to work things out quickly enough to stay airborne. But I didn't have to have a cliff or a tall building to jump from when I could manage to jump that high on my own.
The remaining question was whether I could manage to jump high enough, then Change in mid-air into something air-worthy before gravity asserted itself and I went splat. The risk didn't seem terribly high. I was sure a crash landing couldn't be that bad. Quetzalcoatl had scales too, after all.
I ducked behind a convenient sign next to a parking lot entrance to skin out of my shoes, shorts and top. I crammed them into my fanny-pack and slung it around my neck. Then, one step, a skip, and a big jump. A really fast Change, and I was flying. And doing rather well for a snake, even one with feathers.
I kept it low. I figured not more than a hundred feet. I didn't want to show up on radar and I certainly didn't want to invade any in-use airspace. I really didn't need to know if I could survive being chopped to bits by a helicopter rotor or being sucked into a jet engine.
It wasn't that far, and I had no trouble spotting the building and the tiny spot of grass in front. I headed for it and dropped to a soft landing right on target. A Change back, a quick scramble into my clothes and I walked into the building with a heady feeling of accomplishment, completely forgetting that the front office had a nice-sized window.
As I passed the door to the office I glanced in. Colonel Brock was in there with his hand on the landline, waiting for a call. He looked ... stunned, which was an entirely new expression for him.
"What was that?" He asked.
He didn't bother to ask what that was, he just stared at me until I explained.
"It's an ancient Aztec god."
"Yup. Better than I thought it would, too."
"This is going to sound strange, but anyone else who could change into whatever she wanted that could fly, would choose to turn into a bird. Only you would pick an Aztec snake god."
"I like to be different."
"You'll get no argument from me on that point. Go on in. I'm waiting on a call."
The usual Sigma Seven members were already there. Neeka and Jeff came in after a couple of minutes and Leonora wasn't much later.
We heard the phone ring, and Brock closed the door to take the call in private. Then the waiting started.
After the usual pleasantries and small-talk, we settled down to wait for word to be passed along to us about whatever the mission was going to be. I used to be antsy about getting called-up and then just sitting around, but I'd learned the hard way that no amount of teeth-gnashing on my part would speed things up the slightest bit, so I pulled out my phone like everyone else and scanned the news feeds for anything that looked important enough for us to be handling it.
We searched in grim silence. If we found something, that meant the media was already on it, and our job would be ten times harder because of the coverage.
When Brock came in, we shut everything off and gave him our undivided attention.
"There has been a break-in at a storage facility belonging to the Communicable Disease Center," he announced. "Someone has stolen a container of infectious agents."
Brock paused to let that sink in. Then he continued, "The material they took was part of the inventory of a Bulgarian bio-war lab that was shut down at the end of the Cold War. We ... acquired it, rather than risk having it fall into unfriendly hands.
"How bad is it?" Evan asked.
"According to the CDC, it makes Ebola look like a summer cold. Worst case, it could kill a quarter of the world's population."
"Shit!" Evan muttered. "Here we go again."
That summed up how everyone felt.
Someone had to make the obvious comment and I nominated myself.
"It's The Horseman."
"We don't yet have any evidence to support that assumption."
"It's him. The first time I met him we talked about the various interpretations of the Four Horsemen. I asked which he thought the white horse represented, conquest or ... pestilence."
"You gave him this idea?" Evan asked.
"I was trying to figure him out. I engaged him in conversation. Isn't that what you're supposed to do if they give you the chance? Establish a rapport so you can try to talk them down? At least try to get a handle on what they want? Remember, I did learn something about how he thinks that gave me a clue to what he tried next."
"And he almost killed you," Brock reminded me.
I held up two fingers. "Twice," I said. "But maybe not really intentionally either time. At least not personally. Yeah, I know. He was trying to kill everyone, so it hardly matters if it was personal or not."
"You think you can get into his head again?" Evan asked.
"I'll sure try!" I frowned and thought. "He'll try to release it so that it spreads too fast for a quarantine to work. He'll want to maximize the damage."
"Airport," Neeka suggested. "Let it out at the international terminal of someplace like Atlanta or New York or Los Angeles and it will be global in hours. He could be doing that right now."
"That's the good news," Brock told us. "He can't. This stuff was left-over from the time before biological warfare was banned and both the East and West shut down their research into it. Most of the original supply we captured was destroyed. They only kept a sample for future research and that was stored at the bottom of a vat of liquid nitrogen. It needs to be warmed-up slowly in a controlled environment or it won't be viable. Even then, he won't have but a few milliliters of the stuff. Not enough to infect a lot of people all at once. To get more, he'll have to grow it in a test tube, and figure out how to spread it. That all takes time. They figure three days to defrost it and a week to produce enough to use. That's as quick as it could be done, assuming he knows how to do it."
"So he'll need someplace special to do all this?" I asked. "He can't just dump it into a bucket and wait?"
"Correct. To avoid exposing himself, he will need a Level 3 biocontainment facility. There are a relatively small number of those and they are being investigated. As are the manufacturers and suppliers of equipment used to build them."
"Where was the storage facility?" Neeka asked.
"Dothan, Alabama. The CDC bought a building in a failed industrial park development project there and converted it into off-site storage."
"They probably wanted some out-of-the-way place to keep stuff they weren't using but didn't want to destroy," Neeka said. "Or maybe they just didn't want it close a heavily-populated area."
"Or maybe they just wanted to get it away from themselves," I offered. "That's a chilling thought – that this stuff is so bad the people whose job it is to mess with germs didn't want to be near it. But that's beside the point. So is asking why, if a quarter of the people on Earth are at risk, aren't we having the same kind of all-hands call-up we did for the Elkton business?"
Brock was silent on that.
Leonora offered her opinion, "Possibly because in that case the people who decided what the reaction should be thought they were directly and personally at risk. Whereas I doubt even Mr. Solomon could have pointed to Dothan on a map before today."